Harlequin Historical, $5.50, ISBN 978-0-373-29439-8
Historical Romance, 2007
Oh my goodness, Carla Kelly’s first official mainstream historical romance sees her displaying a side of her writing that nobody has ever seen before. This story of our 1910s scream-queen actress Beaurita Crusoe being stranded in a mysterious island ruled by a clan of politically-incorrect natives with body paint and big spears and all can make even the most jaded erotica reader blush. These natives are all men who, tired of buggering each other with no woman around and all, kidnap a woman and use her until she expires from sexual bliss. Shipwrecked Beau is their latest harem girl. Wait until you read those explicit scenes where these big brutish men force themselves on Beau! That climatic scene with her, twenty hot native hunks, seventeen randy orangutans, a twenty-foot long python, and three bongo sticks has to be read to be believed!
Oh, I’m just kidding, people. Oh dear, have I sent some people running away screaming from the room? Carla Kelly’s Beau Crusoe is very similar in terms of tone, style, and all to her traditional Regency stories and while there are love scenes in this story, they are pretty tame, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing of course. However, I believe it is my duty to warn genteel readers: this book is not for the faint-of-heart. No, I’m serious. I don’t want to give anything away, but a friend of mine emails me to tell me that this book gives her nightmares. Me, I’m that person who chews on chips and laughs at some of the most gory horror movie scenes around, so that particular aspect of Beau Crusoe doesn’t bother me too much. I can imagine that this particular aspect of the story however may not go down well with some readers. Nothing in this book warns the genteel reader to steel herself for what lies ahead, hence my warning these readers right now.
Feel free to email me if you want to know what exactly I am saying here. However, you may actually guess at the nature of it if you know what the plot of the story is. So, if you’re an astute person and you value serendipity in your reading, I’d suggest you stop reading here and rush out to buy this book instead.
Beau Crusoe starts out as a deceptively simple story. James Trevenen has survived five years marooned on a deserted island somewhere in the Tuamotu Archipelago, the sole survivor of the crew of the Orion. Hence his nickname, Beau Crusoe. In those five years, James kept a record of his life as much as possible. When he returned to England, he published the treatise as a study of the crabs in the island. The Gloriosa Jubilate: Creatures at Play in a Tidal Pool on a Deserted Island in the Tuamotu Archipelago snags James the Copley Medal from the Royal Society of London. James is therefore in London for two weeks and Sir Joseph Banks, a former mariner who James admires tremendously, offers to sponsor his stay in London during that time. However, Sir Joseph directs him to the household of Lord Watchmere. Apparently he has told the family, of which he is the godfather to the youngest daughter Susannah Park, to take him in. What Sir Joseph is hoping to happen and James doesn’t expect to happen is James falling for Susannah, a widow with a young son and a not-so-pristine reputation.
Susannah is an intelligent heroine who defies easy labeling like “martyr” or “selfless doormat”. I once said that Ms Kelly is better when she’s writing from her hero’s point of view because her heroines tend to be on the boring side but Susannah here feels like a real person with both strengths and flaws. But Beau Crusoe is James’ story, honestly. Everyone in this book including Susannah reacts to him. He brings out the best in everyone, from Susannah to her estranged sister Loisa to… well, everyone other than the poor villain in this story. However, by the second half of this story it is clear to Susannah that James may be going mad if she doesn’t find a way to help him. Why is James going mad? Well, that relates to the potentially disturbing issues I’ve hinted at earlier. The author drops hints, clear ones, as to what James’ issues are and the build-up is bitingly suspenseful as poor James slowly loses it while trying so hard to hide that fact from the Parks.
I love the fact that towards the end, Susannah and Loisa put aside their differences and join forces to find answers to the nutshell that is James and that Susannah ends up saving James. It’s a beautiful kind of balance – James in the early half of the story is like a Magic Man character who shows up and transforms the Park clan into a happier and closer family, so it’s only right that in the end the family he’s helped so much, especially the woman he’s grown closest to, save him in return.
I really can’t say anything more about the story no matter how much I want to without having to go into spoilers so with great reluctance I am going to stop here. But I’ll say this: James is a beautiful poetry in motion kind of character, because beneath his cheerful and easy-going facade is one of the most tortured human beings you will ever come across in a romance novel. In fact, this story is similar in tone to a sober Laura Kinsale story with one notable difference – where Ms Kinsale is often too in love in deconstructing and breaking down her tortured heroes for too long, Ms Kelly knows when to begin the process of healing. Susannah is absolutely perfect for James. She’s not a saint but she understands enough of James’ pain to know how to help him heal.
Thus, while the first half of this story is a light-hearted “Magic Man Fixes All” romp similar to a heartwarming Hallmark movie, Ms Kelly deftly draws the reader into the second half which is not the easiest tale to read. Yet, that second half has my heart breaking along with Susannah’s as much as it sings when those two find a happily ever after together. Ms Kelly plays me like a violin in this story. I’ve lost count of how many times I laugh and cry as I read this book. It’s almost ridiculous how much this story gets to me but I’m not complaining at all.
The only flaw I find in this book is the cardboard villain, who feels so out of place in this story. I also don’t like how this villain’s flaws are depicted as moral ones, as if I’m being invited to judge this villain and go, “Oh, clearly Beau can’t be blamed for tangling with this villain in the past so oh, he’s perfect now!” If this villain is kept in the hero’s flashback scenes, I will be fine with it since it can be said that James’s memory of this villain could be biased due to his Catholic guilt, but when the villain actually shows up in the story, that’s when I realize to my dismay that the villain is made of cardboard.
At the time of writing, the fate of Ms Kelly’s future works are up in the air since Harlequin has yet to bite. All I can say is: just don’t stop writing. Go get published with some small Utah publisher if that is what it takes, just let me know that I can get it from Amazon so that I will get my Carla Kelly books. Don’t leave me stranded on an island, not after a book like this.