Book Review

The Wedding Journey by Carla Kelly

B+

Title: The Wedding Journey
Author: Carla Kelly
Publication Info: Signet, InterMix 2002
ISBN: 9780451206954
Genre: Regency

Book The Wedding JourneyI 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.


 This book is available from Goodreads | Amazon | BN | Kobo | iBooks and is currently priced at $2.99.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Lil says:

    It’s a lovely book. There are times when Carla Kelly’s decent, honorable people are just what one needs.

  2. 2

    This does sound really good. Occasionally it’s nice to read about honorable, wonderful people getting a HEA.

  3. 3

    I just finished Carla Kelly’s new Western, Her Hesitant Heart, also an excellent angsty weepfest with a surgeon hero. Her Regencies are good, but she really shines with Westerns. If you can, track down the collection “Here’s to the Ladies”, all stories set at army forts on the US frontier.

  4. 4
    Phyl says:

    I’d like to second Darlene’s recommendation of “Here’s to the Ladies.” It’s an incredible collection of stories. And this was a lovely review of TWJ, Sarah. This book has always been one of my favorite CKs. I was so glad to finally be able to purchase an e-copy of it.

  5. 5
    susan says:

    I am a BIG Carla Kelly fan, and I love this book. I think I am due for a re-read. And I cannot wait for Her Hesitant Heart.

  6. 6
    KarenF says:

    I’ve collected Carla Kelly’s regencies on my keeper shelf for years, and I always go back to them for comfort re-reads.  While I do love the army stories, I think the one book that I’ve read the most is Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand.  Or maybe With This Ring.

  7. 7
    cleo says:

    What good timing – I bought this but kind of forgot about it (I think I got it when you posted about the pre-order sale ages and ages ago).  I think I’ll move this up my tbr pile.

  8. 8
    MissyLaLa says:

    Just finishing up AWJ and I think I’ve found a new “Keeper” author.  I love the depth of Ms. Kelly’s writing and how she can convey emotions and the overall sense of a situation with such spare, but lovely prose. 

    Just a sweet, sweet read!  Thanks SB Sarah for introducing me to another awesome book and author. =)

    (BTW, my Keep/Collect authors are: Joanna Bourne, Laura Kinsale, Loretta Chase, and several Lisa Kleypas books.  I’m over the moon excited that so many formerly out-of-print books are being re-released for e-readers.  Snoopy Happy Dance!! =)

  9. 9
    chacha1 says:

    I’ve read all of Carla Kelly’s Regencies over and over again, having been hooked from the beginning by “Summer Campaign.”  Early this year, finally divested the paperbacks since they are now available for Kindle, which means I can pay Ms. Kelly the well-earned compliment of buying them again.

    There are only a couple that I consider marginal, and those are marginal only by Ms. Kelly’s own standard.  By the standard of most short Regencies, they are still among the best I’ve ever read. 

    Ms. Kelly excels at the short format (including the novella) but a few of her stories – The Wedding Journey included – were just too big for the word-count limit.  To me, her excellent characters more than make up for any noticeable haste in wrapping up the plots.

  10. 10
    Nabpaw says:

    I started reading Carla Kelly with Mrs. McVinnie’s London Season back in the early 90s.  I loved it.  I hadn’t read anything quite like it before.  She became an autobuy.  After awhile though, I started to become a little disenchanted.  I swear to god, they’re all such wonderful decent heroic people and they’ve all gone through such horrible things!  I felt like the author just sat around thinking of terrible things to do these characters.  I stopped reading her. 

    Fast forward many years later and for some reason I wound up reading The Admiral’s Penniless Bride, which I enjoyed, so I then read Marrying the Royal Marine.  I enjoyed that one too.  I gotta say though that the characters still have to go through major trauma and there appears to be a lot of heroes marrying heroines to save them.  I’m not saying that either thing is bad, but the books can seem kind of the same.

  11. 11
    Joy says:

    I was just finishing up reading this book when your review arrived.  I’ve never read Carla Kelly before but like the Napoleonic Wars setting.  It’s refreshing to read a hero with quiet courage—no dashing officer but a shy and committed doctor. 

    What I particularly like is that the hero/heroine avoided the “too stupid to live/speak up” tendency and gently grew their relationship and trust in their marriage.  Refreshing change for romance h/h.  I’m kind of burned out of kick-ass h/h and supernatural elements.  I’m so ready for something different in romance.  Any clues what the next trend might be? Of course all the writers and editors who read this are busy, busy wondering the same.  Keep writing folks, keep publishing!  Your readers await.

  12. 12
    Susan/DC says:

    Carla Kelly’s heroes truly blur the alpha/beta definition for me.  They are clearly not chest-thumping or testosterone-laden, but they know what is right and they do it against all odds.  Sometimes I think that because they are aware of danger yet confront it anyway to protect those in their care, they are even braver than the standard alphas, and I find them immensely heroic as a result.  It also helps that I love the gentle humor and the interior dialogues the heroes often have with themselves.

  13. 13
    Karin says:

    I love, love love Carla Kelly. I think this book, along with With This Ring, Mrs. Drew and The Lady’s Companion are my favorites of her Signet Regencies, and the fairly recent trilogy about Navy men, that starts with “Marrying the Captain” is also great.

  14. 14
    Carla Kelly says:

    Thanks for the lovely review and comments. I’m currently writing the first regency in a two-book contract, but I do hope Harlequin lets me write more westerns.

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