by Candice Proctor, historical (2001)
Ivy, $6.99, ISBN 0-8041-1931-7
I've been wondering for a while now how to write this review. See, there are many things I love about Candice Proctor's late 19th century Tasmanian plantation romance Whispers Of Heaven, but my love is more cerebral than passionate. I don't have much enthusiasm for the romance between plantation belle Jesmond "Jessie" Corbett and convicted slave Lucas Gallagher, which remains pretty uninteresting until the last few chapters. My cerebral love is more for the fascinating secondary characters and the heroine when she is not going ga-ga over the rather boring by comparison hero. Am I making sense here?
Jessie is returning to her beloved Tasmanian home after her education in London. Her homecoming isn't as sweet as she hopes though. Her mother is still the control freak, her beau Harrison Tate is still the condescending stuffybore, and everyone is pressuring her to set the date even as her own hesitation starts to mount. But when Irishman Lucas becomes her groom, however, illicit passion starts to fly.
There is little external conflicts in WOH apart from Lucas' attempt to escape Tasmania that culminates in a difficult decision for him towards the late chapters of the story. But oh, the character-driven conflicts are many, and most of them are most satisfying. Candice Proctor doesn't pull her punches when it comes to peeling off the layers of what seems to be the usual same-old characters to reveal complex personalities that hide beneath. Jessie's self-discovery is one of the most well-done aspects of this story, as her dilemmas seem painfully real. She faces difficult choices between family and love, but at the same time, she is one of the strongest heroines I've read this year. She doesn't wield a sword and start playing Xena, of course, but she is intelligent enough to know when enough is enough and when to fight for what she wants in life.
And her nemesis, her mother, is also a complicated character, as a woman who clearly loves her children but who also unable to do anything that doesn't follow the rules she is taught to obey. Harrison, Jessie's Other Man, doesn't turn out to be an Evil Pig, and he is fascinating too, as a man who loves and who, like Jessie's mother, doesn't know any other way to live other than playing hard according to rigid rules. There's also Warrick, Jessie's brother, who learns the hard way that sometimes self-pity isn't the way to live, and that love isn't always breathless, dangerous, and forbidden - sometimes love can be born out of companionship too. He will, no doubt, meekly and gladly be henpecked by Philippa Tate, the deceptively "quiet, submissive Tate sibling" who is just biding her time to grab Warrick by his, er, tender bits.
I find Philippa the most interesting character, as she starts off a typical society debutante, supposedly vapid and brainless (after all, she knows how to behave like a lady, unlike tomboy horseriding Jessie). But as she starts to slowly, carefully chip away at Warrick's armor, she starts showing her true colors. Here is a woman who has dreams too, who has a sense of humor, and who wishes she too can be free like Jessie and Warrick.
Lucas, being a rather straightfoward patriotic Irishman who is sent here because he fought against the British, pales in comparison to the characters I mentioned above. In fact, he seems to serve in this story a purpose more akin to a catalyst to Jessie's self-discovery rather than a hero in his own right for too long in the story. I lost much interest in the early stages of the romance when the author makes it clear that Jessie and Lucas are going to have the usual condescending "Yes, sir, Irishmen are always right, sir!" kind of romance. However, Lucas finally gets his chance to shine when he has to choose between Jessie and freedom. And he does that with style.
I find it great that the author doesn't make Jessie an unconvincing crusader for Aborigine Rights or other PC-motivated nonsense. But I find it amusing that the author at the same time just can't resist PC-ing all her Black characters. Yes, the Black slaves are all "Yes suh, oh we are all good mon, mistuh Gallagher!" nice and noble and misunderstood, and let's not start with the The Irish Are Always Right thing. And Jessie's friendship with a Tart with the Heart of Gold is something lifted right out of Driving Miss Daisy. Too sweet, too stereotypical.
The first half of WOH is pretty passionless in my opinion, but the character study is just superb and keeps me rivetted. I had a ball following Jessie's character development - she is no one-note "innocent bluestocking tomboy who hates her mother and bursts into tears when she remembers poor dead Daddy" twit but a multilayered character with various facets to her strengths and weaknesses - as well as those of Warrick, Philippa (who, alas, gets minimum time in the limelight), and Harrison. But the second half is all turbulent passions and mental anguishes as Jessie and Lucas have to confront the consequences of their love affair. This half blows, really, and it keeps me hanging on to every word. (By the way, no surprise babies, so don't worry. Jessie knows how to ask Gold-Hearted Tart for birth control tips.)
At the end of the day, I am perfectly entertained and thoroughly satisfied. This book actually delivers the emotional impact a good romance novel should. It could have been so easy to just go one-note and having the heroine taking all the blame for everything, as lesser romance novels tend to do, but Candice Proctor in this story doesn't hold anything back. For that, this happy reader is grateful.
This book at Amazon.com
This book at Amazon UK
Search for more reviews of works by this author: