A Savage Beauty
Merline Lovelace has written more than 40 historical (in settings as varied as ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece) and contemporary novels. When she’s at her best, as she was in His Lady’s Ransom, The Horse Soldier, and The Captain’s Woman, her characters are honorable and engaging and her research is impeccable. But when she’s not in top form, her books seem rushed and the characters often fall flat. Unfortunately, that’s the case here.
In A Savage Beauty, Lovelace turns her eye towards a fascinating time in American history – the explorations and political machinations surrounding the Louisiana Purchase. First in a series chronicling the history of the author’s home state of Oklahoma, the novel opens as Daniel Morgan travels with a U.S. Army exploration party along the Arkansas River in the territory that would later become eastern Oklahoma. Daniel is second-in-command to Lt. James Wilkinson (a real historical figure, by the way), but since Wilkinson is sick for much of the journey, Daniel assumes leadership for the group.
The soldiers encounters a trapper named Henri Chartier and his French/Osage wife, Louise and, after an action-packed first chapter or so, Louise finds herself forced to accompany the explorers back to New Orleans. Kept with Daniel for her own protection, the two of them spend the trip quietly lusting for each other in a purple prosed segment that takes up far too much space in the novel.
This leads to the first of this book’s problems – the author’s focus on lust (love does not come into the story until much later) between the hero and heroine doesn’t allow for a real sense of the trip’s dynamics, a thorough enough exploration of the land, or the actual work involved in surveying. I’ve never been to Oklahoma and still don’t have a very good sense of it after reading this book. What the author does do well is explain the politics behind the survey of the Louisiana Territory.
Louise and Daniel travel from the Arkansas River to New Orleans quite quickly. Little happens to advance the plot, and the action in this part of the book is rushed. When she’s really on her game, Merline Lovelace’s historical romances remind me of the best of what the “old-style” romances had to offer – good historical research; characters who are developed and who share real chemistry; and a vast, sweeping saga of a story. In this novel, however, plotting is choppy, which results in too little plot advancement in parts of the book while at other times so much plot is hurriedly shoved into so small a space that I felt as though I was reading a 500-600 page saga crammed into 384 pages.
And what about character development? Actual historical figures such as the Wilkinsons were moderately interesting, but most of the other characters fell flat. Louise started as a fierce and independent woman who, regretfully, turned childlike and sometimes TSTL soon after meeting Daniel. Her speech pattern grated; everything was “so silly,” “so expensive,” or “so ridiculous.” As for Daniel, he was undoubtedly the most complex character, but since he was so thoughtful (and even tortured on occasion), I wondered what he saw in Louise.
A Savage Beauty did not live up to its potential. The flaws in plotting and characterization were too glaring to ignore. The squeamish should be forewarned: there’s quite a bit of violence (including rape/attempted rape) along the way. Merline Lovelace has written some wonderful books, but this isn’t one of them.