Desert Isle Keeper
A Marriage of Equals
Harlequin Historicals continues to demonstrate that smaller packages contain not just good things, but sometimes, things that are great.
As a young girl, Psyché Winthrop-Abeni came to England from Jamaica with her biological father, a white man (her enslaved mother had died). She was raised alongside her white cousin as a daughter of the house by her great-uncle, but nevertheless was not received as an equal in society – or even in her own family. Psyché decided to forge her own path and became a successful independent businesswoman, owner of the coffee shop The Phoenix Rising.
Psyché is close friends with a neighboring shop owner. His aristocratic young niece Catherine is being forced into marriage and escaped to her uncle, but since his shop is the first place she’ll be sought, Psyché agrees to take Catherine in. But Bow Street is on the case, and kidnapping an heiress is a capital crime. It turns out that Catherine has also sent a letter begging for help to Lord Huntercombe. His secretary, Will Barclay, investigates on his employer’s behalf, arriving just in time to help Psyché hide Catherine. Will begins to form a bond with Psyché himself.
This book strikes a nice balance between action (for instance, a Bow Street search of the street where Psyché’s shop is) and quiet, character-driven scenes. Psyché’s bedside vigil with a dying older relative is gently moving. Once Will and Psyché become lovers, we see lovely, companionable sequences where they simply spend time together. Chemistry and the adrenaline and drama of courtship don’t always translate into a strong marriage, so I’m a sucker for books like this which show domestic happiness. I can envision Psyché and Will sitting contentedly above the shop, reading and chatting or washing dishes together, for decades to come.
Slavery and racist treatment of Psyché are central to this book. Most chapters include at least one microaggression, and there is a sequence describing the brutal abuse of an enslaved character. While the book directly confronts and includes Regency racism and the transatlantic slave trade on the page, it is not a ghoulish or voyeuristic horror story of Black misery. Psyché is a competent, successful businesswoman with close friends, from her employees to her relatives. She takes joy in loving and being loved, and Will adores her. I’ll note, however, that neither I nor the author are Black, and I can’t guarantee that this (or other race-related content in the book) will come across the same way to a Black reader.
I do have some concerns about Psyché’s reluctance to consider marriage. The best interpretation I can put on her commitment concern is that she knows that the status of a married woman is far different from being enslaved, but she has worked so hard for the independence and freedom that she has, and the story of her parents is so traumatic and toxic, that she is deeply leery of jeopardizing anything by trusting a man with the powers he’d have as a husband. As for Will, he’s prepared to marry Psyché, but has delayed telling her the true story of his estrangement from his family. I appreciated that this misunderstanding was rationally discussed.
Some of the supporting cast appeared in previous books set in this universe – notably, the Lords at the Altar series – which I’m not familiar with, so I was confused by the references to them and their plots. The white characters polarize too tidily into moral extremes. It would have been more nuanced to see at least one character who seemed nice in other ways but didn’t, say, renounce West Indies sugar. The ending action sequence requires some suspension of disbelief, and I didn’t like a villainous threat to have Psyché transported and enslaved.
If you noticed any connections in this story, the author writes in her afterword about her inspiration, Dido Elizabeth Belle, and the extensive research she did into Belle’s life which shaped Psyché’s life and experience (Dido did, in fact, marry a white man of approximately Will’s social status). That’s not the only historical accuracy I was pleased to find: hooray for an author who understands how early-1800s pistols aimed (as in, they didn’t) and the perils of being shot by one (infection, more than bullets).
If you’re in the mood for an escapist romance, this won’t be it. But if you’re looking for something which celebrates and uplifts a woman who thrived in the face of discrimination and challenges, rewarding her with professional success and the great love of a kind man, you may enjoy this book as much as I did.