According to Carina Press, this book is 75,600 words long, which translated into 210 pages on my Nook.
This is set in San Francisco in 1870. Corruption runs rampant in the local government and, while the police might help a white woman forced into prostitution, they certainly wouldn't help a Chinese woman. When Huiann arrives in America, she expects to soon be married to Xie, a wealthy businessman she has never seen before, who her parents arranged for her to marry. Instead, Xie tells her that he plans to sell her virginity to the highest bidder and that, if she behaves herself, she may one day be able to live in luxury while she trains other girls to become prostitutes the way Madam Teng will train her.
On the way to see the man who has bought her virginity, Huiann manages to escape. The store she hides in is Alan's. Alan Sommers saw Huiann when she first arrived. He had admired her beauty then, but had assumed she was meant to be someone's bride. Alan can't speak any Chinese dialects and Huiann doesn't know English, but Alan still understands that Huiann is in trouble and needs help, so he lies when a man enters his shop and asks if he has seen her.
After a while, Huiann starts to feel safe in Alan's shop and home. Alan hires her as his housekeeper and teaches her English, and Huiann makes a little money by sewing dresses for Alan to sell in his shop. They start to fall for each other, but the odds are stacked against them. Xie is still looking for Huiann, who he considers to be his property. Also, Alan is trying to become a politician, in the hopes of bringing about positive changes to the city. If anyone found out about his relationship with Huiann, the scandal would destroy his budding political career. Even if they got married, they would still have to face others' prejudices. Will Huiann and Alan be able to overcome all the things that stand against them?
This post was an absolute bear to write. I'm not sure why, since I even had decent notes that covered pretty much everything I wanted to write. I just had a hard time putting those notes into reasonably coherent and mostly organized paragraphs. I'd have abandoned the whole thing, except I liked the book enough that I wanted to make sure there was a mention of it on my blog. Plus, the cover image is pretty.
Anyway, the first half of this book really grabbed me. I read a good chunk of Captive Bride in just one day. Huiann was a great heroine – although she had grown up relatively sheltered and suddenly found herself in a very bad situation, she didn't completely fall apart. Instead, she did her best to survive, kept her head, and waited for a chance to get free. Even when she was captured again later in the book and there was a greater possibility someone (Alan) would come for her, she didn't wait to be saved, but rather looked for opportunities to save herself.
I really enjoyed the parts of the book where Alan and Huiann were still getting to know each other and gradually becoming more comfortable with living together. Although they didn't speak each other's languages at first, they still managed to get by. They even managed to benefit from the language barrier – they felt more free to confess their fears to each other, knowing that the exact meaning of their words wouldn't be understood and yet gaining comfort from being able to finally say things they could never say to anyone else. Alan spoke of the horrible, lasting effect being in a Civil War prison camp had had on him, while Huiann spoke of her anger at her parents for sending her to marry a man they had never met.
Although Huiann wasn't technically Alan's prisoner, she was limited in what she could do or where she could go – any time she went out in public, she risked being spotted by Xie or one of his men. Although Alan enjoyed just having her around, I liked that he understood her need to have something to do, particularly something that was truly useful. Her dressmaking filled up her time and challenged her, as she tried to work out how to copy expensive designs. It also gave her a chance to earn money, since Alan refused to take all of the profits. When her talents began to be more in demand, she was able to help her friend Dora out by enlisting her help – working with Huiann allowed Dora to earn a little money for herself that the abusive drunk she lived with didn't have complete access to.
In addition to having to deal with being cooped up a lot, Huiann understandably experienced some homesickness. I loved the gifts Alan purchased for her, a few small Chinese items he thought might remind her of home and give her some comfort. Although none of the book's events took place in China, Dee was still able to work in Chinese cultural details. Huiann's love for and closeness to her family were clear, and I admit to both hoping that she would be able to see them again and dreading the possibility, since, if she went back, it was highly unlike she'd ever be able to see Alan again.
For some reason, I didn't find the second half of the book to be quite as good as the first. Part of my problem, I think, was that, even with Huiann gaining a few slight freedoms here and there, the book began to feel a bit claustrophobic after a while. Every time Alan left to attend parties or speak to people in order to further build up his political career, I worried more and more about Huiann, who seemed destined to become Alan's dirty little secret. The one thing that kept me from disliking Alan and his part in this was that he, too, worried about Huiann and felt guilty about the position he was putting her in. It also helped that Huiann was aware of some of the obstacles standing between her and Alan and knew full well that she might be making a mistake she'd have to pay for later.
Dee did manage to give Huiann and Alan a happy ending, but it wasn't all kittens and rainbows – there was a definite recognition of the fact that their chosen path would have bumps along the way. However, Dee managed to make me believe that, whatever their future might hold, Alan and Huiann would be able to weather it. They were strong individuals and, at the same time, a solid couple.
Some additional comments I wanted to make but couldn't quite find room for (which probably contributed to the weeks it took me to write this post):
- There were a few things I felt got kind of...dropped. Dora seemed to just disappear, unless she got another mention that I somehow missed. I'm assuming she found herself another place to live. Also, I wondered why Huiann and Alan didn't seem to be concerned that one of Xie's associates might decide to cause Huiann's family problems, even without Xie around to give the orders. I didn't quite believe that they could be made safe so easily.
- For those of you interested in romance novels in which contraceptives are mentioned: Alan has condoms, and Huiann drinks some kind of horrifying concoction designed to keep her from becoming pregnant. I was kind of curious about how effective condoms made at this time were, and I worried a bit that the stuff Huiann drank might make her sick.
- The Fire Rose (book) by Mercedes Lackey - Those who'd like another historical romance set in San Francisco and who don't mind fantasy might want to try this. It's set in the early 20th century. The heroine's father has just died and she has been left with nothing. With no other decent options, she accepts a position as a governess for the children of a wealthy rail baron in San Francisco, only to learn that her employer was not entirely honest with her. While he does need her academic abilities, he has no children. Magical experiments he performed in the past have disfigured him, and he is trying to look for a way to fix himself before his biggest enemy takes advantage of his weakened position. I have written about this book.
- The Measure of a Lady (book) by Deeanne Gist - Another historical romance set in San Francisco, this time during the year 1849. This one's an inspirational romance. I've written a post about it, if you need more info - unfortunately, I wrote it back when I was more inclined to include lots of spoilers, so read the post at your own risk.
- Butterfly Swords (book) by Jeannie Lin - Those who liked the interracial romance aspect of Captive Bride and would like something else with a Chinese heroine might want to try this historical romance set in Tang Dynasty China. Lin's The Dragon and the Pearl, which stars a former concubine and the villain of Butterfly Swords, would also be a good fit. I have written about Butterfly Swords.
- Amaranth and Ash (e-book) by Jessica Freely - If you're willing to be more adventurous, you might try this futuristic romance. It features similar story elements: one of the characters stays hidden in the others' home, they can't be together because of their differences, etc. I have written about this book.
- A Bride's Story (manga) by Kaoru Mori - Those who enjoyed the way Captive Bride dealt with cultural differences and details might want to try this historical slice-of-life manga series. It features a rare positive look at arranged marriages, in an odd sort of way. I have written about the first volume.