by Carla Kelly, historical (2009)
Harlequin Historical, $5.99, ISBN 978-0-373-29528-9
Marrying The Captain is not going to be the most exciting story around as for a long time it takes place in a small run-down inn called the Mulberry, with the hero confined to his bed due to illness. Nonetheless, this is distinctively a romance by Carla Kelly as it features another hero who is too much of a darling for words, a smart and sensible heroine, a simple yet moving relationship, and some beautiful writing.
The war between England and France is still going on when this story opens. France has, in fact, instituted a blockade against the English navy. The folks in Plymouth see their business affected by this recent development, and no one feels the painful effect it has on one's livelihood as much as Eleanor "Nana" Massie. She along with her grandmother and a cantankerous former sailor run the Mulberry, a small inn whose clientele comprises, or rather, used to comprise mostly folks who need a place to stay when the better inns in town are full. With the current situation taking place, alas, very few ships are docking at Plymouth.
One such ship, the Tireless, sends Captain Oliver "Oh Yes, He Is Indeed" Worthy into Nana's life. The Tireless was damaged after a recent accident involving another English ship captained by a silly fool, and it will take about six weeks before Oliver can return to sea. While Oliver is stuck on land, he is approached by the undersecretary of the Admiralty House for a favor. Viscount Ratliffe, the undersecretary, reveals that he has an illegitimate daughter who apparently ran away from her finishing school when she was sixteen to live with her grandmother in Plymouth. Can Oliver stay at the inn while he waits for his ship to be repaired and send word to Ratliffe about how his daughter is doing?
The daughter is, of course, Nana. The short synopsis at the back cover gives away the reason why Nana fled to her grandmother's side, so I may as well mention it here as well. Oliver suspects that Ratliffe is not telling the whole truth about the man's relationship with his daughter, and he is right - Ratliffe wanted to offer Nana as a mistress to one of the many men in the Ton whom he owes money to and Nana ran away because she wanted nothing to do with such an arrangement. By the time Oliver learns of the real reason why Nana left, he has already spent considerable time in Mulberry, being taken care of by Nana and her companions because of an illness, and has fallen head over heels for Nana.
Marrying The Captain is a story that is told mostly from Oliver's point of view, with Nana often giving her point of view only to fill the reader in on things that Oliver has no way of knowing. This is fine with me, because I personally feel that the author is much better at creating memorable heroes. And oh, Oliver. He's such a sweetheart that I don't know whether I want to adopt him or marry him. Oliver is a nice guy, although he'd tell you laughingly that he is the way he is because his late father was a vicar.
Oliver is an interesting hero in that while he may be more good-looking than your average guy on the street, he isn't a typical romance hero. Instead of hyping Oliver up as the most dashing and virile man in the world, the author instead focuses on letting me understand what makes Oliver tick. Oliver enjoys being in the Navy, but at the same time he is keenly aware of, even as he accepts this as his destiny, how he has no true home aside from his ship, how he has no strong relationships tying him to land the way other sailors have wives, families, or girlfriends to come home to. He tells himself that he is content - besides, it wouldn't do to subject a woman to the lot of a sailor's wife in the time of war, constantly waiting for the husband to come home from sea and worrying that he will not. Naturally, his acceptance of his own lot in life is challenged when he meets Nana and realizes that for once he has a good reason to keep his two feet grounded on land.
Through Oliver, Ms Kelly brings to life the beautiful and ugly aspects in a sailor's life in such a vivid manner that I often feel as if I'm walking in Oliver's shoes. Ms Kelly doesn't hype up Oliver as this great seafaring captain, instead portraying him as a human being who is doing his best in a job that he enjoys. As a result, Oliver becomes a most attractive kind of romance hero: the everyday Joe who dons the shining armor not because he's a hero but because he is just doing what he believes is right for everyone.
Nana is a good match for Oliver, although her limited point of view in this story causes her personality to be less well-drawn compared to Oliver's. She is aware of her mother's history with a seafaring man, so she knows that there is a chance that she may end up repeating her mother's mistake with Oliver. What I like about Nana is how she accepts the fact that she desires Oliver, but she doesn't let this desire control her. So many historical romance heroines would happily sleep with the hero for that memory of that one orgasm that they will cherish when they are old and unloved, but Nana is smarter than those idiots. She is very well aware of the stigma of being an illegitimate child, given that she is one herself, and she doesn't want to repeat her mother's mistake. Nana is also an intelligent lady who can put two and two together. Her blind spots are her belief that no one can love her, shaped by her interactions with people in her past who shun her because of her station, and her pride at not wanting to be a charity case. I'm quite puzzled by how Nana can believe that she is not worthy of being Oliver's wife when, apart from the stray snobs, the folks in Plymouth seem to go out of their way to be kind to her. If Nana has been treated like an outcast, I may understand her reluctance to marry Oliver, but Nana is treated like a princess in this story by the various folks in Plymouth. Then again, I suppose I can say that she believes that they are treating her kindly because they pity her. At any rate, poor Nana's limited point of view during the developing relationship between her and Oliver causes her character to remain an enigma in some ways.
The second half of the story has a spy subplot that kicks up the pace a notch and plunges our main characters into intrigue and danger. I feel that this aspect of the story is its weakest. The spy subplot shows up out of the blue, but that is fine. What I find problematic is how this element of danger is used as a rather contrived measure to move the relationship between Oliver and Nana to a more intimate level. Nonetheless, our characters get to openly declare their love for each other and demonstrate the lengths they would go to protect each other, so I think I'm fine with the results of the introduction of this subplot. Still, I can't help thinking that this subplot is introduced to facilitate the ridding of a few obstacles to the happily ever after. Perhaps I would feel differently if the subplot is gradually built-up as the story progresses instead of being popped into the story in a manner comparable to how a meteor would crash land into one's backyard.
All things considered, though, when it comes to Marrying The Captain, my answer is a resounding yes.
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