I don't remember who recommended this book to me, but I vaguely remember the suggestion coming with advisement that this is one of Carla Kelly's best Regencies. I have no idea if that's true, as it's the first I've read, but holy smoking hotcakes, this book was exactly what I needed.
I started reading this the evening of the Boston Marathon bombing, after I turned off the news and the internet to try to stop that horrible compulsion to keep looking and bearing witness even though I wasn't able to bear much more without inviting nightmares. What perfect comfort reading: a story that takes place in Spain in the Napoleonic wars in an army hospital tent, with casualties and cruelties of war everywhere, right?
Surprisingly, yes. Much like the many, many posts on social media recalling Fred Rogers' encouragement to look for the helpers in a disaster, this book was a similar comfort: when the story grows more scary and awful around the characters, they become more powerful, more creative, and more admirable. It's odd to call a war-set Regency a comfort, but it was, because it was filled with brave helpers trying to make the best of the awful. I needed the reminder.
Jesse Randall is a Scottish doctor in the English army in the Peninsular wars. He first meets the heroine when he's a young medical school graduate. She's 10 and he's newly assigned to the unit where her father serves. Nell and her brother are social outcasts from the rest of the army because they were lower class. Their mother was determined to overlook everything their father did, and said father was drinking, gambling, and generally cavorting his life and his family's respectability away with each evening's entertainment. When the surgeon in charge of the medical unit, Jesse's boss, begins giving food, aid or attention to Nell and her brother, Nell takes it upon herself to repay him with the only thing she has of value: blue beads on a necklace. When she runs out of beads and is humiliated by the confirmation of her family's poverty, the surgeon invites her to do odd jobs in the medical tent, such as sweeping and preparing supplies. From that day, Nell is an unofficial and much welcome aide to the medical tent.
Jesse leaves that unit for a time, and comes back years later to find Nell has grown up into a brave and very beautiful young woman, and as they work in the tent together, practicing medicine on every possible horror war can introduce to the human body, he slowly falls in love with her. But Jesse is very, very shy, and very quiet, and cannot figure out how to even approach courting Nell, especially as she works in his tent, her father is a disaster, and he has, at that time, little to offer her, as he is still serving in the army. Nell has been in the army her whole life, and Jesse wants many better things for her, things he's not able to speak up and provide.
When Nell's mother dies, Jesse and his fellow medical team learn that Nell's father has promised her to a brutal, horrible thug of a man named Major Bones (perfect name, isn't it?). Major Bones is a Major Asshole, and Nell's father is so deeply in debt that, despite his misgivings, he has little choice but to agree to Bones' demand. The medical team and the patients in the tent try several methods to come up with the amount owed to free Nell from life with Bones, but in the end, Jesse steps up, and in a hurried ceremony, marries Nell. Unfortunately, the entire group underestimates Bones' ability to get revenge, and when they wake up the following morning, they find that Bones has orchestrated the retreat of the army in such a way that they and their patients are abandoned in the encampment, alone, unguarded, and likely targets for the ever-approaching French army.
There are two journeys in the book. First, the literal journey of Nell, Jesse, the doctors, and the patients from their abandoned encampment to the location of the army in Portugal. It's a road trip with danger, intrigue and a lot of bandages. Second, Nell and Jesse journey from being friends and coworkers in battle to being honest about their feelings. Jesse has to learn to speak up for himself, though he has no idea that those same feelings he can't talk about are obvious and telegraphed by his relentlessly honorable actions. His actions deliver an emotional monologue with a backdrop of Rockette dancers holding signs, but only if one notices – and Nell does not.
Nell is so used to one humiliation after another that she could not and does not see Jesse's feelings as regard and love. She thinks he's married her for convenience, that he should be embarrassed to be married to her, and that, due to the treatment of everyone in her life, she is worth very little to everyone. Nell has to learn to appreciate herself, and understand Jesse's love for her. And they both become incredibly strong in the journey. Jesse becomes the hero slowly and sneakily, and as a shy beta hero with medical skills and a deep, intelligent understanding and moral struggle with his job, I loved him.
To my great delight, much of the story is told from Jesse's point of view, and it's a very deep point of view. The reader is party to his thoughts about his job, his skill, his imaginary conversations with Hippocrates, and his struggle to do no harm. He knows he is a misfit in the army, he knows he is shy, and he knows he isn't changing. When circumstances force him to act, he steps up to the tasks in front of him with increasing confidence. It's a wonderful transformation. The way the other characters respond to him, too, was touching and revealing. Their wedding scene in particular made my eyes sting.
Unfortunately for me, the ending was so rapid, pat and almost too easy, and I was disappointed with the mania in the last few scenes, especially considering the careful development of the story up to that point. There were character turnarounds and reformations that I didn't entirely buy and swift resolutions of conflict that wrapped up so much so fast and so neatly I didn't feel they addressed emotionally the circumstances that had caused them. In the end, the finale of the story is not so much the emotional journey between Nell and Jesse, but instead the journey to get them all to safety. Their last obstacle is surviving, and the resolution happens so fast, I was surprised and left unsatisfied.
But, oh, gosh, the writing. It's so lovely. Jesse often has conversations in his head with himself, with Hippcrates, with his imagination. His outward demeanor is unremarkable given the way the other characters treat him, but his inner monologue was a treat.
Here, have samples.
Here is Jesse describing one of the other doctors:
Colonel James McGrigor, spare of limb, tall of frame, and devoid of meaningful hair, extended his hand and Jess shook it, always amazed at the formality of the man.
We have stood, shoes deep in blood after Fuentes de Oñoro, operating side by side, and still you hold out your hand. Now comes the bow, eh?
And Jesse talking about Major Bones, whom everyone hates a lot:
“I would really rather use our hospital funds to find a Sicilian willing to pull Major Bones’ liver and lights out through his rectum,” he murmured to Dan. Sorry, Hippocrates, but once in a while I would like to do some harm.
And those of us who have been joking online about the pollen count lately, we're not alone:
The chaplain seemed to be having a problem with his nose that required his face be engulfed in a large handkerchief. “Drat this pollen,” he murmured.
Jesse after one of the first nights he sleeps alongside Nell after their marriage:
Hippocrates, was ever anatomy so well represented? he asked himself. I know better than most men that she is a conglomerate of skin, blood, tissue, bones, muscles and nerves, but only look how nicely arranged. He got up slowly, hoping not to disturb her, and trying to keep his head as level as possible.
And Nell, talking to Jesse about their marriage:
“I’ve lived my whole life so far with people who never said what they felt. I don’t think it made them happy. I don’t want that now. If I am boorish at times, if I fumble, please know this: I want to get it right.”
Despite the horrible things they are witnessing at every moment, and the struggles and scary moments they face in each sequential hour, they are both determined to be good people who do right, and who honor their marriage, no matter how unconventional its beginnings. Jesse has always loved Nell, and hides his feelings behind a sham marriage. But they both want a happy life, if they get to have a life, and their honesty with one another was painfully endearing.
As I said, I didn't expect a Regency romance about a hospital and the surgeons within it facing wartime cruelties to be a comforting read. But the depth and complexity of the emotions in the story, the determined and realistic optimism of some of the characters, the road trip with bandages and a bone saw, and the charming dialogue and inner monologues combined to make this a restorative and welcome read.