Carnal Gift can be broken down into three parts: a stellar beginning, the dreaded sagging middle, and a good ending. Fortunately, the middle is the shortest section, making for a solid read overall.
Brighid Ni Maelsechnaill’s childhood came to an end the day her beloved father, a teacher, was arrested and shipped out of Ireland by the English. In the following years she worked hard to take care of her three brothers, setting aside her former dreams of a husband and children of her own. Then comes the day her brother Ruaidhri insults their cruel English landlord. He is about to be arrested when help comes from an unexpected source.
Jamie Blakewell came to Ireland from Virginia to enlist the support of his old Oxford friend Sheff, an earl with connections in Parliament. But his friend is nothing like the young man he once knew. While on a hunt, the two men stumble into the middle of an illegal Catholic funeral for a dead newborn. Sheff immediately orders his men to arrest the priest and have the baby’s body buried in a pauper’s grave. Outraged, Brighid’s impulsive younger brother fights back. Only Jamie’s intervention defuses the situation.
But there’s a price. Having noticed Jamie’s interest in the young Irishwoman, Sheff has his men drag her from her home and bring her to his estate. He offers her as a gift to Jamie, one he intends them to share. Distrustful of all Englishmen, Brighid is convinced Jamie is going to rape her. Instead, he enacts a plan to preserve her virginity while leading Sheff to believe he’s had her. His tenderness sparks an unexpected desire within her for a man she knows she should hate. And the danger is only just beginning.
It’s a beautifully written, historically rich tale with a larger feel and scope than many historical romances these days. The story initially seems a little cloying, with a prologue so achingly sweet it’s enough to make your teeth hurt. But there’s a reason for that, contrasting Brighid’s idyllic childhood with her family’s hard struggle to survive once their father is taken from them. Brigid is a fierce, strong-willed heroine and a fighter. Her distrust for Jamie because of his Englishness immediately sets the tone for their fiery relationship. He’s every inch the hero: honorable, good-hearted, but with enough strength and determination to keep him interesting. He may be good, but he’s no pushover. The opening chapters move quickly, and I was caught up in the drama of the heroine’s desperation, the inherent injustice of the situation, and the danger and the passion of the romance right away. In addition to the main story there’s a sweet, if somewhat underdeveloped, secondary romance, and a number of varied supporting characters.
The beginning is so good I started to wonder if I was reading my first A in a long time. But the strong opening eventually gives way to a sagging middle. There’s a period in the middle of the book where the subplots and other characters mostly fade away and the main ones are the only two seen for a while. It may please readers who enjoy long spells where the main characters slowly fall in love, but even they may grow restless. For Christmas, Jamie gives Brighid a lovely gift. Then he makes a beautiful gesture that shows his feelings for her. Then he gives her another gift. Then another. Then another. Just when I started to wonder when he’d turned into Father Christmas, they then proceed to have a lot of sex. By the time the other characters reappear, it’s easy to have forgotten they even exist.
But the story eventually picks up steam as it rolls toward the end, placing the characters in ever more desperate situations that heighten the drama once again. The stakes are raised, all the subplots come together, and there’s at least one surprise revelation and one particularly interesting supporting character in the mix. It all culminates in an exciting, then unexpectedly moving, climax. If the ending seems a little too perfect, I doubt many readers will mind.
I had some quibbles, like how very politically correct Jamie was (he’s a Virginia plantation owner, but naturally he freed all his slaves, who now work for him for an honest wage, and he loves Native Americans). It got to the point where it was a relief when Jamie gave Brighid a fur and she loved it. At least they’re not that PC. But that’s a fairly minor point. Overall Carnal Gift remained a most compelling read. Anyone craving a bigger historical with larger-than-life drama and passionate romance should check it out.