Desert Isle Keeper
Taking Liberties is probably the perfect title for this book. It isn’t meant in the cheeky sense of stealing a kiss, but in the broader, more literal way. The common theme running through the story is that liberty is not something to take for granted; you must take is for yourself, forcefully if necessary.
Diana, Lady Stacpoole, receives a letter from an old friend begging for help. Her son, a sailor in the American colonial navy, was captured by the British and she pleads with Diana to see if she can discover his fate. Normally Diana wouldn’t consider going off on such an errand, but her miserable, abusive husband has just died, and now Diana finds herself subject to the confining wishes of her jealous daughter-in-law. In a fit of minor rebellion against the miserly dependence her son grants her, she decides to go ask a few questions about the missing sailor, after all.
Makepeace Hedley is also searching for someone missing in the war, her daughter Philippa. Philippa was on a ship bound for England from Boston when the British sank it, and no one knows where the girl has disappeared to. Makepeace and Diana first cross paths at the Sick and Hurt Office of the Navy, inquiring after their respective missing persons. Neither gets much help, and they both set off, separately, for Plymouth to learn more.
Makepeace finds her daughter, only to learn that a friend traveling with Philippa is being held prisoner. Makepeace is an intensely loyal person, and resolves that she can’t leave Josh, a young black man whose mother was a dear friend of hers, to rot in the prison camp. Prisoners aren’t being exchanged, so Makepeace decides Josh’s only hope is to escape, and she sets about trying to help him do it. Meanwhile, Diana locates her quarry in the prison as well, but has no more luck than Makepeace at getting him freed. What she can do is improve the appalling conditions in the prison hospital, so she does, using her name and position to start a subscription fund. This outrages her son, and Diana, by now unwilling to return to his governance, elects to stay near Plymouth in the family home on the Devon coast that she hasn’t seen since she was young. And that’s where she runs into Makepeace and the smugglers.
Diana begins as a character frozen in indifference. Her husband was a sadist who beat her at any sign of emotion, and now she can hardly feel anything. She keeps asking after her friend’s missing son out of some vague sense of guilt that she ought to have done more to protect her son from his father, and that begins the thaw. With every action she takes, she inches farther and farther out of her cool detachment from life. Battling the cruelty of the prison nurses and doctors makes her feel needed; returning to her old family home makes her feel independent; and the French smuggler she catches storing ‘duty free’ goods on her property – well, he makes her feel something else indeed.
Makepeace was harder to warm up to; for a while she flirted with that awful label “spunky,” or even worse, “headstrong.” When tact is called for, Makepeace blurts out the bald facts. When caution is needed, Makepeace charges after what she wants. The thing that saves her from being annoying is her enormous capability: when something needs doing, Makepeace gets it done, come hell or high water. When told she needs a place to hide Josh, Makepeace buys a house. And an inn, just to be on the safe side. Make friends with the smugglers who could spirit Josh to safety? Done. Do menial labor in the hospital so that she can communicate with Josh? Done. Find a boat to make a vital trip across the Channel? Done. Her friendship with Diana also mellows her. Having had two loving husbands, Makepeace realizes how good she’s had it compared to Diana, whose marriage was hell on earth. In the end, Makepeace repays her by forcing one last bit of liberty on Diana – if she hadn’t, the grade for this book would have been a big, fat F double-minus, after all Diana had been through. Instead, it was tense, thrilling, romantic, and utterly satisfying.
I didn’t expect this to be a romance at all, but in some ways it was. Both Makepeace and Diana are desperately lonely. Makepeace loves her husband, but as an inventor his mind always engaged with something besides her. She responded to it by throwing herself into her very successful businesses, and has ended up neglecting her family. As her quest to save Josh unfolds, it gradually becomes a quest to get her husband back, not just from France but for herself. Diana’s life is about as empty as it can get, and she has to build it up, friend by unlikely friend. While her romance is underplayed, it’s the thing that finally sets her completely free of her old life. For love, Diana finds she can disregard rank, family, dignity, and the law – and the man she loves does no less for her.
Taking Liberties is a moving story about the remarkable things people will do for freedom for themselves, for the ones they love, and even for an entire people. It takes a little while to get started, and at times seems to meander in odd directions, but everything and everyone has significance. Philippa isn’t there just to be a precocious kid, the earthy prostitute isn’t there just for an element of sex, and the crazy old caretaker in Diana’s house isn’t there just for Gothic overtones. For its complex characters, finely constructed plot, engaging writing, and just a bit of romance, I can definitely recommend this book.