Monday, January 17, 2011

The Admiral's Penniless Bride (book) by Carla Kelly

I tried to keep the synopsis relatively spoiler-free. The commentary, however, contains spoilers, so you might want to skip it if you have a problem with that sort of thing.

Sarah Sophia Paul Daviess (I will call her Sophie from now on) is seriously down on her luck. A few years earlier, her husband (who I believe had some sort of position in the Navy, although I can't remember what it was) hanged himself after he came under suspicion for something he swore he didn't do. Not long after her husband's suicide, Sophie's young son died because she was unable to earn enough to take him to a doctor when he fell ill. Since then, Sophie has been able to earn barely enough to provide for herself, by acting as a companion for elderly ladies. She uses almost all of her money to travel to her latest job, only to learn that the lady she would have been working for has died and her services are no longer needed.

Ever since his retirement from the Royal Navy, Admiral Sir Charles Bright's older sisters have been hounding him, driving his servants crazy, trying to marry him off, and ordering awful furniture for his new home without his approval. Desperate to get them off his back, he hits upon the idea of a marriage of convenience, but the woman he decides upon never shows up for their arranged meeting. Spotting the obviously down-on-her-luck Sophie (who also happens to be much prettier and a better conversationalist than the woman he'd originally settled on), the kind-hearted Admiral tells her a little about his situation and proposes a marriage of convenience. Sophie doesn't have many choices left to her, so the offer is tempting. Eventually, deciding that marriage to Admiral Bright really is better than the alternative, she caves.

Their marriage turns out to be a surprisingly good and smooth one, helped along by the fact that Sophie and Bright's personalities mesh well. Bright had not mentioned that his home is a bit...scandalous...due to its previous owner's interests, but Sophie takes the pornographic statues, books, and decorations in a stride. As part of the first steps towards redecorating and making the house theirs, Sophie and Bright meet and befriend their neighbors and hire more staff. Sophie turns out to be reasonably good at dealing with Bright's temperamental French cook and his overbearing older sisters.

However, Sophie has been hiding a big secret. Bright doesn't know that Paul is only her maiden name and that her husband's name was Daviess. Although she tells him about her husband's suicide, she doesn't mention the specifics of what he was accused of. Realizing she has begun to fall in love with her new husband, Sophie can't help but wonder and worry: if Bright finds out the truth about everything, how will he react?


It was hard for me to write this post. I consider this an okay book, and I thought the main characters made great friends, but I didn't really feel the romance.

I'll guess I'll start off with one of the first things I noticed as I began reading the book: the cover is completely wrong. Unless that's supposed to be Sophie and her previous husband, the Harlequin art department goofed up by not even flipping the image so that it's the guy's right hand showing. Instead, we get a good view of his perfect, non-amputated left hand. I mean, come on, it's mentioned early on that Admiral Bright has a hook for a left hand.

Once I got to the hook bit, I started wondering where Kelly was planning to go with it. I had never even thought of Regency-era prostheses before - surely people didn't actually wear hooks? I was looking forward to a good "penniless woman enters into a marriage of convenience" story, but I wasn't sure I liked the idea of the hero and his hook hand being turned into a joke.

I've never read a contemporary romance in which the hero has a prosthesis, but Kelly writes about Bright's hook the way I imagine a prosthesis would be handled in a contemporary romance. Bright worries that Sophie may be disgusted by his hook and handless arm and is happy to learn that, right from the start, Sophie doesn't mind it one bit. Because Kelly doesn't treat the hook as a throwaway physical detail, it has an effect on what Bright can and cannot physically do (he can't hold a cup of tea in his right hand and open Sophie's door with the other, because his hook can't turn the knob), and the hook must be taken into account during sex scenes (no, nothing kinky, it's just that it needs to be taken off so no one gets stabbed).

Kelly even tries to incorporate the hook into what I assume were supposed to be early romantic moments, such as the bit where Bright twirls a lock of Sophie's hair around his hook and, instead of pulling away, Sophie helps him. That didn't really fly with me, because I couldn't help but wonder if Sophie had ever dealt with someone with a prosthesis before (the questions she asked him indicated to me that the answer was probably "no"), and then I wondered if there shouldn't be at least a little awkwardness on her part. Sophie is never awkward about Bright's hook at all - all the awkwardness is on Bright's part, as he wonders if she really means it when she says his hook doesn't bother her.

As I mentioned in my post about Julia Quinn's When He Was Wicked, I'm not a huge fan of romance novels that star widows or widowers. If the back of this book had mentioned that Sophie is a widow, I might not have picked it up. If it had also mentioned that Sophie had had a young son who died not long after her husband, I would have avoided the book like the plague. As it was, I cringed when these details came up. Although it seemed odd and possibly a little unrealistic that Sophie didn't grieve more for her husband and son in the book, I was willing to accept that the passage of time had softened her grief and that she was too practical to let grief keep her from continuing to live. I was happy Kelly didn't feel the need to force readers to slog through pages of grief and guilt.

So, the hook and widow aspects were done reasonably well - it just took a while for me to be sure they weren't going to turn me away from the book. What carried me through my initial doubts about this book were Sophie and Bright's early conversations. They got along extremely well, and it showed in the way they talked to each other. They clicked so well conversationally that it didn't seem so much a stretch for them to agree to a marriage of convenience, despite them not knowing much about each other.

I could imagine Sophie and Bright becoming friends, and, once they were married, I could imagine that friendship warming up a bit into something sexual, because it had been a while since either of them had had sex. The problem was, I really couldn't feel the romance in this book. I can't quite put my finger on why, either.

Maybe I'm too young for the characters? I can't remember if Sophie's exact age is ever mentioned, but she's old enough to have been married and have had a young child, but young enough to get pregnant again (a bit of a spoiler, but it shouldn't come as too much of a shock, what with all the mentions of "our children" before Sophie and Bright even think about having sex with each other). I was guessing late 20s, early 30s for her. I know Bright's exact age was mentioned, although I can't find it in the book right now. He's 46, I believe. Both of them are well out of the giddy first romance stage, but I know I've read other romance novels with older main characters who came across as more romantic than this couple.

Maybe there weren't enough scenes that felt romantic to me? Both Sophie and Bright have moments when they have warm, fuzzy feelings for each other - one of my favorites is when Sophie describes the little details that tell her Bright is in a good mood, details that make it seem like she's been married to him for years, even though she's only known him for three days - but... I don't know how to describe it. I'm sure there are people out there who have read or will read this book who'll disagree with me. As much as I enjoyed many of Sophie and Bright's scenes together, they just didn't click with me as a romantic couple. There was nothing in the book that put a silly grin on my face or made my heart go warm and mushy. Bright, in particular, did nothing for me as a romantic hero.

Although I'd say I enjoyed the book overall, it was an uneven read for me. I really liked the beginning, when Bright and Sophie first met, Sophie accepted his offer, and Sophie arrived at Bright's home. Again, just like I wondered if Bright's hook would be turned into a joke, I wondered if the pornographic house and lawn decorations would lead into a goofy rest of the book. That didn't turn out the be the case. The house's interesting history gave Kelly the opportunity to introduce a few characters I assume she intended for readers to see as quirky (seeing as one of them had intended to rape Sophie, I don't care if he was in his eighties, he was just creepy).

After a reasonably strong beginning, Bright and Sophie go visit their neighbors for help getting the staff necessary to turn their home into something less embarrassing, and every single visit turns out to be emotionally devastating in some way. They turn out to be their elderly Jewish neighbors' first visitors in 30 years. Then their other neighbor turns out to be connected to a painful part of Bright's past. As if Bright and Sophie's niceness and kindness hadn't already been underscored enough, Sophie insists that they hire on a few people she met while job-hunting at the beginning of the book, including, to name a few, a jobless governess, and a little girl who not only doesn't have a real name (her name is Twenty) but who was also being physically and sexually abused by her former employer. It got to the point where I felt like saying, "Enough already, I get that Sophie and Bright are the nicest of the nice people and better than anyone else."

Thankfully, the seemingly unending examples of Sophie and Bright's goodness finally let up. The more romantic aspects of the book got into full swing - as I've already mentioned, they didn't do much for me. I ended up being more curious to see how things would turn out with respect to the secret Sophie was keeping from Bright. As far as that went, I was not happy with how Bright reacted to learning about Sophie's secret. As he himself later thought, he could have hurt her badly. He didn't, but he could have. I also thought it was a bit out of character for Bright to have fallen apart so much after Sophie left - I had considered him a fairly practical person who would have been more believable if he had concentrated single-mindedly on finding Sophie again, rather than closing himself up in his wine cellar and drinking himself stupid.

Overall, I'm not sorry I read this, but I don't think it'll ever be a reread for me. I do think I'd probably pick up another one of Kelly's book's if I saw one I thought might appeal to me, just to see if I'd end up liking it more.

I did a bit of checking, and I figured out why the name Carla Kelly sounds so familiar to me. She was mentioned on the Misadventures of Super Librarian blog as a mainstream writer who's making the jump to inspirational romance. In a comment, Kelly says, "Why I'm doing this is because I'm tired of stupid book titles, and I want to write things other than Regencies." Considering the many craptastic Harlequin book titles (and I'm sure the cover of this particular book was a bit of a slap, too), I can understand the first part. I can understand the second part, too, particularly if she wants to continue writing historical romance. A lot of romance publishers, and Harlequin in particular, see "historical" as meaning the same thing as "Regency." Jeannie Lin may have gotten Butterfly Swords published as a Harlequin Historical, but you can still find more variety in the historicals put out by other publishers.

I hate coming up with read-alike lists for category romances - my usual methods of trying to find suitable read-alikes tend not to work so well for them. This time, my read-alikes list focuses on themes. The first half of the list would be good for those who'd like more romances featuring amputee main characters, while the second half of the list would be good for those who'd like more romances featuring marriages of convenience.

  • Midnight Angel (book) by Lisa Kleypas - Those who'd like another book featuring a hero who's lost his hand might want to try this. I haven't read it, but it sounds darker and more dramatic that Kelly's book. This historical romance features a heroine who is on the run from a murder she may have committed but can't remember and a hero who is haunted by the fire that killed his wife and took his hand.
  • Dancing in the Moonlight (book) by Raeanne Thayne - In this book, the heroine lost her leg while working as an Army nurse in Afghanistan. She's unsure how the hero, a doctor, could possibly be interested in her, what with her prosthetic leg and all. This one is a Harlequin/Silhouette Special Edition and may be a good one for those who particularly liked the scenes where Bright wondered how Sophie felt about his hook.
  • The Convenient Marriage (book) by Georgette Heyer - I found this while looking for Regency romance novels that feature a marriage of convenience, but I think this may actually be a Georgian romance. Anyway, in this book, the stammering, plain heroine marries the handsome hero to release her sister from any obligation to marry him. I've never read one of Heyer's books, but I may have to try this one - it sounds like fun.
  • A Promise of Spring (book) by Mary Balogh - I initially decided to put this book on this list for a few reasons: it's a Regency historical romance, it features a heroine who's not the typical young virgin (in this case, the heroine is 35-years old), and it has a marriage of convenience. Then I learned about another one its potential appeal factors, not necessarily for those who are fans of Kelly's book, but for those who's like a romance with something a little bit out of the ordinary: the hero is 10 years younger than the heroine. I can think of only one romance I've ever read in which the hero was younger than the heroine - I may have to hunt this one down.
  • Morning Comes Softly (book) by Debbie Macomber - This is a contemporary romance. The hero is a grieving surly rancher who's recently lost his brother and sister-in-law and must now take care of their three children. He quickly realizes he can't do it on his own, so he decides upon a marriage of convenience. He has alienated all the women in town, so he puts out an ad for a mail-order bride, and gets Mary, a quiet librarian who wants to get herself a life.

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