The Other Guy’s Bride
As I read Ms. Brockway’s much anticipated The Other Guy’s Bride, I was reminded of one of my favorite featherweight films, the 1999 romantic comedy caper “The Mummy.” The novel, like that delirious movie, stars a strong willed, smart tongued English lass and a sexy, cynical swashbuckler traveling together across early 20th century Egypt, escaping bad guys, outracing sand storms and, of course, falling in love. If you like your romances over the top, filled with danger, passion, and adventure, you will adore The Other Guy’s Bride.
Genisse Braxton hails from a world renowned archaeology-oriented family. Her father, Harry Braxton, is the most successful locator of tombs in Egypt; her mother Desdemona (Dizzy) Braxton is a famous and excessively brilliant linguist. Genisse’s six younger brothers too are making names for themselves in the antiquities world: The eldest of the six is an expert in embalming techniques and 18 year old Francis is a whiz at spotting — and making — forged artifacts. Genisse longs to join, even surpass, her family’s ranks. After studying ancient history at Cambridge (Ms. Brockway acknowledges she took several liberties with history; one is that Cambridge, in the early 20th century, admitted women and had a program in ancient history), Genisse becomes a glorified clerk to handsome Professor Lord Tynesborough, the youngest distinguished professor in the history of the college. One day she stumbles across an ancient bill of lading that convinces her the fabled lost city of Zerzura exists deep in the western Sahara. After doing months of surreptitious research under the watchful eye of Tynesborough, she decides to take hold of her fate. She boards a boat bound for Cairo — the city where her family lives and she grew up — determined to find Zerzura.
Genisse has two problems. One, she hasn’t any money for such a trek. Two, she can’t travel to Zerzura on her own and no one in Egypt would dare take Harry Braxton’s daughter on such a perilous journey. She is presented with the perfect solution to her quandaries, however, in mild-mannered Mildred Whimpelhall, the wildly seasick woman traveling in the cabin next to Genisse’s. Mildred is ultimately headed to Fort Gordon, an English garrison not thirty miles from where Genisse believes Zerzura lies, to join her fiancé Colonel Lord Pomfrey. Pomfrey has arranged for Mildred, once she arrives in Cairo, to be escorted across the desert by a man he describes as a “yellow-haired American cowboy… a ruffian of the highest order” named James Owens. Genisse convinces Mildred to travel the rest of the way to Cairo by non-nausea inducing train, uses henna to dye her brown hair a revolting red, and assumes meek Mildred’s identity.
The only thing James Owens loathes more than Colonel Lord Pomfrey is the debt he owes the man for saving James’s life seven years ago. James, known across Egypt and Northern Africa as a deadly soldier of fortune, has agreed to escort Mildred Whimpelhall across the Sahara in order to discharge his debt. As he waits at the crowded Misr train station in Cairo, ruing the fact he has to spend the next weeks with a proper English spinster, he runs into one of the few people he calls a friend, Haji Elkamal. The urbane and educated Haji, whose aunt is the wonderful Magi from As You Desire, has been sent to pick up Ginesse, with whom he has a long and combative history. (The two grew up together and battled constantly. Haji in a sense won when he managed to get Ginny blamed for burning a cache of ancient papyrus and subsequently sent away to British boarding school.) Ginny/Mildred alights from the train and encounters both men. Jim thinks, despite her astonishingly hideous coiffure, she’s gorgeous; Haji, thrown off by the red hair and dark glasses she’s donned, doesn’t recognize her. The encounter is perfectly done and damn funny. Ginny pretends to mistake Haji for a common servant and treats him like a dog. Haji, believing Ginny is the English born and bred Mildred, curses the rude Miss Whimpelhall to Jim in Arabic which Ginny speaks but doesn’t acknowledge knowing. Jim acts the part of the rough, uncouth buckaroo — no one will be surprised to learn that Jim Owens is more than what he seems to be — while cracking up at Ginny/Mildred’s xenophobic insults to Haji. Ms. Brockway is a very amusing writer; scene after scene in this book reduced me to helpless giggles.
Ms. Brockway is equally excellent at portraying (Anglo) Egypt at the turn of the century. I’ve never been to Cairo, but after reading Ms. Brockway’s marvelous descriptions of that city I’m longing to go. Here’s Ginny’s view as her train slides into the city she loves:
Minarets pointed heavenward like slender fingers, while beneath them the round domes of the mosques glowed as smooth and white as a concubine’s breasts. To the south, the old city jumbled in fanciful confusion along twisting alleys and narrow, rutted lanes in direct contrast to the ponderous purposefulness of the European district with its orderly houses and wide, lebbeck-canopied avenues. The afternoon wind had begun churning dust from the streets and shaking it over Cairo’s head like a manic cleaner woman beating a rug, enveloping the city in a shimmering shroud.
Whether rendering clueless chattering British matrons taking tea at Shepheard’s Hotel or the harsh ugliness of a desert oasis, Ms. Brockway makes her fictional world vivid, real, and enticing.
I didn’t find Jim and Ginny to be as authentic as the settings they inhabited. I didn’t care. The two – indeed every single man, woman, child, and donkey in this novel – are marvelously entertaining. Haji, Tynesborough, Ginny’s grandfather Sir Robert, even starchy Miss Whimpelhall and priggish Pomfrey all enliven and enrich the narrative. What they lack in verisimilitude, they make up for in allure. This book reads like a movie — think Raiders of the Ark, not The English Patient. The dialogue is fabulously droll and dramatic; the action scenes, death defying; the chemistry between the leads, on par with that of Bogart and Bacall.
The book’s truly strong elements make its few weak ones stand out. Ginny, for a brainy broad, is for too long enamored of romance rather than love, and it’s frustrating to watch her reject the latter because she’s miffed she’s not been offered the former. The last chapters of the novel are relationally repetitive — Ginny works herself into vacuous tizzies over issues with no real emotional substance. In both As You Desire and The Other Guy’s Bride, Ms. Brockway portrays Egypt’s English plunderers as admirable but, in certain circumstances, misguided. As anyone who has ever followed the international cultural wars over the Elgin Marbles knows, the issues underlying colonial archeology are complicated. In her attempt to stay out of that battle, Ms. Brockway lessens the power of the elements of her tale built on the quest for artifacts and ancient ruins. The villain, an iniquitous thug who’s a superb camp cook, suffers from one too many motivations—greed, revenge, a taste for sadistic violence — and a bargain he makes at the novel’s end makes dubious sense. Lastly, I was bothered by Ginny’s propensity for punching Jim. At one point he asks her to stop and she retorts “I wouldn’t have to if you didn’t keep saying things that provoke me.” If their roles were reversed, Jim would be a base abuser. Why should such aggression be tolerated from the heroine when we would be revolted by it in the hero?
All in all, though, The Other Guy’s Bride is great fun. It’s a worthy sequel to As You Desire (although I was a little appalled at Dizzy’s fecundity) and can enjoyably be read as a standalone story. It’s the sort of fiction that once you start, you won’t want to stop until
the credits roll the very last page.