The Irish Bride
I’ve been a fan of Alexis Harrington for many years. A Light for My Love was my first Harrington read, and I fell in love with Jake Chastain and his story of unrequited love (later “requited,” of course!). Other favorites include A Taste of Heaven and Harper’s Bride. I was hoping The Irish Bride would be added to my list of favorites, but it had some frustrating aspects that made it a just slightly better than average read.
The Irish Bride opens in 1855 County Cork, Ireland, where Farrell Kirwan and her friends and family (a cousin, Clare, married to one of the O’Rourke brothers) are in a major bind. Farrell has just fled from Greensward Manor, where she had been working as a maid, after thwarting the lascivious advances of the English owner’s son, Noah Cardwell. Even worse, her brother Michael, ruthlessly ambitious enough to serve as Cardwell’s rent collector and enforcer, is lying dead from a fatal, if accidental, blow to his head. He and Aidan O’Rourke had come to blows when Michael and his henchmen came to evict the O’Rourkes from their cottage (for no good reason) and burn it to the ground.
The compelling worry is that the wrath of the powerful Cardwells will come down on all of them, leaving them homeless in addition to being impoverished. It is decided that Aidan and Farrell must leave to protect the others, and Aidan suggests that they find a ship bound for America where, according to letters from other Irish exiles, there is plenty of work to be had and plenty to eat as well. Only Farrell is horrified by this idea; not only is she frightened about leaving the only home she has ever known, but she has been betrothed for two years to Aidan’s older brother, Liam. It’s only when Liam convinces her there is no other way that she agrees to the plan. And, at the insistence of Aidan’s father, the priest is brought in to quickly marry Aidan and Farrell.
The story follows their travel from the village of Skibbereen to Queenstown Harbor, 30 miles away near Cork, and onto America by ship, and then to their ultimate destination in Oregon Territory, with Noah Cardwell hot on their heels.
What is best about this story is the realistic backdrop and details. Harrington does a fabulous job of painting a very vivid picture. From her prose it’s easy to imagine the abject poverty of the Irish in the aftermath of the potato famine that occurred thirty years earlier as well as the frailty of the immigrants in making that ocean passage and succumbing to illness and starvation along the way. The conditions in the ship’s hold as sickness takes over will horrify and the reader will be shocked by the miserly attitude of the captain in always underestimating the amount of food necessary for the journey. The sense of the passengers’ hopelessness as they watch their beloved Emerald Isle fade in their wake eventually turns into a sense of new hope as they disembark in a bustling, thriving new world two months later, and Harrington makes you experience it along with them. There’s the wonder of the lush, exotic greenery growing in the humid New Orleans heat, the impressive elegance of the plantations they pass on their way up the Mississippi, the richness of sweet-smelling soap made with lanolin instead of lye, and the luxury of a hotel room that would probably be considered medicore by someone more accustomed to such comforts. There’s also the horror of African slaves being moved in shackles from slave ships docked in the port.
Harrington also did well with the dialect. She didn’t use much of it, yet somehow she combined it with a certain cadence and word usage that immediately suggested a brogue to my ear. And she infused her characters with a cultural realism, shown, for example, when Aidan tells Farrell when she has a nightmare: “It was only a bad dream sent by the fey people to trouble you, that’s all.”
I enjoyed Farrell and Aidan, found them likable and believable. Farrell is strong and adaptable, and she doesn’t waste energy (or the reader’s time) by becoming a millstone around Aidan’s neck when he’s so desperately working to keep them safe. She makes no bones about the fact that she didn’t choose him and wouldn’t have, given his reputation for drinking, wenching and brawling. She chose Liam precisely because he was as different from her worthless father as anyone could be. But Farrell also realizes, as she did before she took the marriage vows, that she is a woman alone, dependent on others in this world, left with few choices and, in every way that matters, at the mercy of the man to whom she is bound. She also comes to see that there is much more to Aidan than she ever suspected, a strength of character, body and mind that she can count on. He also arouses a passion in her that she never felt with the placid Liam, but then that wasn’t initially what she was looking for in a mate.
It’s Aidan who deliberately delays consummating their marriage, when he realizes that a pregnancy before they’re safely situated could put Farrell’s health at risk (and this is one of the few rationales for this plot device that I could have bought into). Aidan has always loved Farrell, from the moment he looked at her and realized she had changed from girl into young woman. He is astounded by the quirk of fate that has him married to her, as all his efforts to gain her attention – the drinking, the storytelling, the brawling – had gone unnoticed because she had only had eyes for Liam.
This is a story with much to commend it, but it is kept from being a great book – or even a truly good one – by several things. First there’s Noah Cardwell’s pursuit across the ocean (a two-month trip, mind you) and and the U.S., which is more than a little unbelievable, particularly since he only wants Farrell and is not nursing any blood-thirst for Aidan. While his actions might have been more credible were he madly in love with her, traipsing thousands of miles in pursuit of a woman he lusts after (when there must be others to choose from more near at hand) is not, even taking into consideration the “slight to his manhood” angle.
Secondly, the story loses momentum about halfway through, and doesn’t seem to know where it wants to go. A new conflict between Aidan and Farrell arises that does little more than push the story along while delaying the inevitable climax. Handled differently, the conflict and its inevitable consequences could have been much more meaningful in terms of deepening Aidan and Farrell’s relationship. Here it just seems like filler. From that point forward, the story is disappointing in its failure to live up to its earlier promise. The climax is a bit anti-climactic (not to mention that a key denouement takes place “off-stage”), and the final pages seem rushed and lacking in the kind of winding down that would have made the epilogue more welcome and less gratuitous.
Though there’s a richness of detail and a love story that works most of the time, The Irish Bride isn’t as good as the other Harrington titles I mentioned. When the story does work, it shines, but the second half of the book doesn’t live up to the potential found earlier. And the villain’s voyage halfway round the world simply fails the credibility test. So if you’re new to this author, I’d recommend starting with one of my aforementioned favorites.