Lady Emily's Exotic Journey
The thing that initially attracted me to this book was the fact that while it’s set in the Victorian Era, the action takes place well away from England. I have no objection to England as a setting, but it’s a refreshing change to find an historical romance set somewhere else; and the fact that I’ve always been fascinated by the art and culture of the countries through which Emily travels (many of which are, unfortunately, places I’m unlikely to be able to visit given the current political situations there) meant that Lady Emily’s Exotic Journey was doubly appealing.
The eponymous heroine is the daughter of the Marquess of Penworth and has accompanied her parents on their trip, which has been occasioned because Lord Penworth has been asked to investigate the possibility of building a railway along the Tigris River Valley. Emily is accompanied by her friend Lady Julia de Vaux, and the young ladies will continue to travel with the Penworths to Mosul in what is now Iraq. All four characters endeared themselves to me instantly because of their desire to experience all the customs of their host country and enjoy the local colour and their dismay at the “Englishness” of décor favoured by the British Ambassador, and being served English food at dinner.
”We are in Constantinople, thousands of miles from home, and we might as well be in Tunbridge Wells.”
(To anyone who has seen the film version of Shirley Valentine – If I say I was reminded of Dougie and Jeanette, I’m sure you’ll understand what I mean!)
The marquess’ party is to be accompanied to Mosul by two young gentleman, the attaché David Oliphant – the handsomest man Emily has ever seen – who is to act as their guide; and Lucien Chambertin, who, while not as handsome as his friend, has a gorgeous smile, together with the kind of boundless energy and infectious good-humour that Emily finds far more interesting.
The first twenty percent of the book is excellent; I whipped through it quickly, enjoying the growing friendship between Emily and Lucien, relishing the good common sense of the Marquess and his wife, and the wonderfully vivid picture Ms Marek paints of the sights and sounds of the desert, the river and the settlements through which they pass. Her descriptions of the places, clothes and food fixed them all thoroughly in my mind (and made me hungry!), and she was careful to show how important it was for the women, in particular, to follow the accepted conventions of this very different society.
At the 20% mark however, the story suddenly stalls and starts to tread water, which it does until around the half-way point. During the journey to Mosul, the group travels along the Tigris River on rafts of local construction called keleks, and at one point, are shot at by a group of discontented Kurds. Lucien tackles Emily to the floor of the raft in order to protect her – and this one act then engenders a great deal of navel gazing on both their parts. Emily can’t stop thinking about Lucien’s warm, hard body on top of hers; she doesn’t know what she’s feeling but she’s sure she shouldn’t have enjoyed it or be constantly thinking about it, and Lucien is bothered because he now knows he thinks of Emily as more than a friend, and he shouldn’t because he doesn’t want any emotional entanglements. So he decides to distance himself from Emily, she gets miffed because he’s avoiding her and the next 30% of the story is bogged down in all this mental mooning which became annoying very quickly. The most interesting thing to happen during this part of the story was the visit to Sheik Rashid, David’s maternal grandfather and his desert tribe.
Fortunately, things pick up around the half-way point, when both Emily and Juila become targets of a kidnap attempt, which sees Lucien dashing off to the rescue in one direction and David in another.
Lady Emily’s Exotic Journey is an entertaining read, but it does get bogged down in the first half, and while I liked the central characters, none of them is particularly memorable. Actually, I was more intrigued by Lord and Lady Penworth, who are wonderfully enlightened and perceptive in their outlook, both in their openness to new experiences and the fact that they allowed Emily to accompany them in the first place.
Lucien is the more engaging of the two principals, and I liked that Ms Marek chose not to make her hero the most gorgeous man on the planet, instead going for the guy with the smarts, the funny and the irresistible personality. Hints are dropped throughout the story that Lucien is not exactly what he seems to be, and that he has left a difficult family situation behind him in France. He has some growing up to do, and comes to realise that running away just made the situation worse and that he’s now more than capable of dealing with it.
Emily is a sensible young woman with a taste for adventure, but she’s the same young woman at the end of the book as at the beginning, which made her rather bland. Also, while Ms Marek is very good at depicting the growing friendship between her protagonists, she is less so at developing the romance. After that one moment of physical awareness on the raft and all the mooning, Lucien and Emily realise they are in love – but there’s too much telling and not enough showing at that important, falling-in-love stage of the romance.
I did enjoy reading Lady Emily’s Exotic Journey – I just wish that there had been more “journey” and less mooning in the first part. The romance is sweet, if somewhat underdeveloped, but Ms Marek’s writing in the descriptive portions of the story is very good indeed, and definitely merits a qualified recommendation to anyone looking for an historical romance set in an unusual location.