Lady Julia Delerue is going over the accounts for the Florida branch of Delerue-Sanders shipping after the death of her uncle when she discovers that somebody is stealing cargo right from their ships. In an effort to find the culprits, she decides to disguise herself as a grubby cleaning woman and work at Ganymede’s Cup, a local tavern belonging to Richard and Robin, two former pirate cohorts of her mother’s. (Ganymede’s Cup is also known locally as the Greek Boy, and given the kinds of pirates Julia’s mom had on her ship, you KNOW what sort of Mediterranean lad they’re referring to.) With its strategic location and less-than-savory clientele, Julia hopes to overhear enough to figure out what’s going on. Her only lead so far is a name but nothing else: Rand Washburn.
Then a couple of dimwits nab her, toss her onto a wagon and drop her off in the middle of nowhere. In the middle of nowhere with possibly the only backwoodsman around with all his teeth and nose left. (Apparently Cracker fights involved a lot of nose-biting. How cool is that little historical factlet?) In the middle of nowhere with, coincidentally, the Rand Washburn she’s been hearing about at Ganymede’s Cup. Figuring that this opportunity to solve the mystery is too good to pass up, she pretends to be Richard’s English niece and offers to cook and clean for Rand.
Rand still has several functional brain cells, so of course he’s suspicious of Juliaâ€”that woman is a liar if he ever met one. He assumes she’s probably a spy sent by one of his competitors, and he’ll just keep her close until he figures her out. Hey, the woman can sure cook some good possum. OK, it’s kind of annoying when she keeps following him on his clandestine meetings, but she also saves his hide from some particularly unscrupulous smugglers, too. Who knew that impoverished scullery maids from England knew how to shoot? And Julia’s not the only one who’s hiding something; he has a few big, big secrets of his own.
Just so you know: if you’re on a diet, don’t read this book. It often goes into excruciating detail on what Julia’s cooking for Randâ€”buttermilk pancakes, persimmon cake and orange-vanilla pudding are just some of the more memorable itemsâ€”and I’d feel hungry after putting the book down. This is despite some graphic descriptions of what brined possum looks and feels like, so Darlene, if you ever feel the urge to go into writing food columns or become a commentator for Iron Chef, GO FOR IT.
Overall, Smuggler’s Bride is a pretty decent read. I’m not sure I’d call it a Big Misunderstanding romance, but let’s just say that there are a couple of Big Secrets that do lead to misunderstandings, and Marshall is skillful enough in her execution that I never questioned the necessity of Julia and Rand keeping mum.
Rand himself is pretty yummy. He’s flippant and lazy and sexy, but there’s a nice little bit of depth to him because he used to be in the Army fighting Indians, and like nice, sensitive girly-men who were ordered to do all sorts of unsavory things to the various tribes he dealt with, he has some inner scars that haven’t quite healed properly.
Julia, on the other hand, is a pretty standard feisty romance heroine. I wouldn’t exactly call her Too Stupid to Live, but she does take some pretty big risks with her personal safety out in the wilds. Ever since our discussion about TSTL double-standards, I’ve learned to be more careful about judging heroines as such and Julia does know how to defend herself, thanks to her piratically-inclined mother. But at one point all her goings-on made me stop for a second and think: really, what aristocratic, gently-reared Englishwoman from the nineteenth century would offer to cook and live alone with a criminal whom she’s never, ever met before? Then I remembered: DUDE, it’s a romance novel. Fuck realism. This crazy impulsiveness to Have Adventures Come What May is part of her character (probably inherited from her mom, heh), and the book would’ve been a whole lot duller without it.
Some of the secondary characters are pretty awesome. The two men who initially kidnap her, Ben and Frank Ivey, are pretty funny, but their mother, Ma Ivey, is a regular caution. I giggled out loud when she tried to show Julia how to chew tobacco juice and spit it on the plants to keep the bugs off.
So a qualified recommendation for Smuggler’s Bride. It’s fun and the setting is refreshingly different for a historical, but it doesn’t quite pack the oomph I look for in a keeper.
Look for a star in the east, for again, Candy and I have agreed on the grade for this book. If one looks at the author’s progression as a writer, this novel has much more character development, backstory, and personal relationship development on the part of both protagonists than the previous novel of Marshall’s that we read. I knew why Rand and Julia were into each other; there was no, “Hey! Suddenly we’re in love! Let’s get it on!” moment. They were forced into odd-yet-close quarters with one another and despite the multiple secrets between them, I knew why they fell for each other.
The multiple secrets is one of the two features of this book I must praise the author for, as it’s a fine line to walk between Big Misunderstandings and Hiding Secrets For the Sake of Intrigue. Intrigue is fabulous when done well, but Big Misunderstandings are rarely if ever done well – particularly when you have the characters living in the back woods of nowhere county with no one else to talk to but each other. Big Misunderstandings can hardly flourish in such an environment, but intrigue and secret keeping can, and the challenge of keeping such a story line moving forward lies in the fact that, in this case, the reader knows almost all the secrets, but has to sympathize with the characters who are lying and the ones who are being lied to. The reader knows who Julia is from the beginning, and has a good amount of damning evidence against Rand, though one never wants to believe the hero of a romance is Up to No Good. So what kind of No Good is he up to? And is she going to be able to choose her family over him if he turns out to be indeed Up to No Good? Sustaining the tension is hard, and Marshall does quite a job.
Rand himself, I thought he was quite the dreamboat, but I have a big thing for men who are held to their code of honor, even if that code conflicts with what they find they want more than anything. He’s a confident, self-assured and very smart and crafty man, whose experience in the Army has left him with a very clear and weighty sense of right and wrong that he must at all times live up to. Given the situation he finds himself in with Julia, that moral code is often pressed for testing, and I get all kinds of enjoyment out of watching a noble hero struggle with his own nobility.
Julia was likeable, equally confident, and this may be a sexual double standard on my part, but I found her often to be stunningly, bafflingly, and sometimes stupidly brave. Like Candy said, I can see, from having “met” her mother in a previous novel, where she gets her stone ovaries, but woo damn, does that girl do some astonishing things, and I have to chastise myself for having a harder time accepting Julia’s bravery than Rand’s.
But the most wonderful aspect about this book is the rare find of an author who, when crafting a secondary character who is in all points unique, refuses to fall back on the convenience of stereotype and make that secondary character a one-dimensional caricature. Ma Ivey is a backwoods, rural, roughly educated, far-from-high-class woman, and there are stereotypes of such rural individuals all over the country. She spits, chews tobacco, makes possum stew, teaches backwoods cooking, and generally speaks in such language that in lesser hands she would become a poor shadow of the character she actually is. It would be simple for the author to swing a phantom arm around the reader’s shoulders and snicker in her ear, “Possum soup? Gross. What a nasty woman, ha ha ha,” and allow the reader to believe she’s in cahoots with the author in laughing at such a strange and low-class creature.
But Marshall doesn’t allow her character to be dismissed: Ma Ivey is also a mother, and a mother who lost one of her children. She’s generous, kind, and thoughtful, and her genuine regard and caring for Julia makes her a terribly fun character to read about. She isn’t just a rural hick who eats possum and probably can’t read. She’s a woman who survived in a harsh land living a sad life on her own, who deserves respect and admiration, even if the entire idea of stewed possum makes me want to gag. I always got a case of the giggles when Ma Ivey’s wagon came rattling onto Rand’s property.
There are so many “forced to live together” “she isn’t who she says she is” “he isn’t who he says he is” stories out there, and I can usually find one that takes place in just about every time period. What’s different about Smuggler’s Bride is the twists applied to the intrigue, and the side characters like Ma Ivey that almost overshadow the main protagonists. It’s as fun and light in tone as Pirate’s Price and a pleasure to read. But I think I’ll remember the characters more than I’ll have an urge to revisit with them.