Desert Isle Keeper
The Surgeon's Lady
This is a very lucky year for Carla Kelly fans: two new books to enjoy, after years of more occasional publishing. If you’ve read Kelly before, you know her books stand out. In a veritable sea of Duke This and Earl That, she writes about ordinary people who fall in love. Her language is never canned, and her plots are never ridiculous – even when they are somewhat unusual, as this one is.
Lady Laura Taunton is the illegitimate daughter of Lord Ratliffe. Her education at Miss Pym’s Female academy was a result of his largess, but she was expected to pay for it – by marrying an older man who was willing to pay for her (and fund Lord Ratliffe’s gaming debts). Laura had nowhere to go, so she endured a nightmarish marriage to Lord Taunton, an older man who subjected her to his relentless attempts to sire an heir. After he had a stroke, Laura spent years caring for him. Now that he is dead, she’s not really sure what to do with herself.
Coincidentally, Laura receives a letter from her half-sister Nana (heroine of Kelly’s previous book, Marrying the Captain). Nana is also Lord Ratliffe’s daughter, and has only recently discovered the existence of two half sisters. She is determined to make their acquaintance. Laura screws up her courage and visits Nana. While she is there, she meets Lieutenant Philemon Brittle, a surgeon in the Royal Navy. He treats Nana’s husband Oliver for an injury, and Laura finds herself attracted to him. He jokingly offers her a job with him in a Naval Hospital, knowing that it would be completely improper for her to accept.
But when one of Oliver’s young crew members is injured, Laura agrees to go visit him in the hospital. She is sure that she will just pop in and then return to her estate, but one thing leads to another, and she realizes she is truly needed in the hospital. What’s more, she seems to have a gift for the work. Of course the very idea of her working as a hospital matron is completely improper, but somehow she manages to talk her way into the job. In the process, she brings along several of her staff, all of whom help make the ward a more comfortable place.
Laura and Philemon do not have a tempestuous, I-love-you-no-I-hate-you kind of romance. There are no dark secrets, misunderstandings, or bouts of self-pity that get in the way. It’s clear from the beginning that they share an attraction, and that it is mutual. That said, there are still obstacles. Laura’s employment and occupation are completely unorthodox. Philemon’s job involves brutal hours, horrific conditions, and little time for sleep – let alone courtship. There are class barriers as well. Though Laura was raised in an orphanage, she is a lady. Finally, Laura’s memories of her husband’s brutal behavior cast a shadow as well.
I enjoyed this book from start to finish. Kelly’s voice is, as usual, completely refreshing. Her books may be set in the regency period, but they are never Regency-lite. Where other authors might throw in some period cant and clothing and call it a day, Kelly simply takes you there, with believable characters and situations.
I particularly liked Laura, who is pragmatic, courageous, and helpful. Her inward struggle to overcome her past (both her birth and her troubled marriage) are well-portrayed. She doesn’t wallow, but she does face her fears. Philemon is innovative and passionate. Their love makes both of them better people.
If you’re a longtime Kelly reader, you may notice that her books are getting more – well, for lack of a better word, earthy. Her older books were fairly oblique when it came to sex; it happened, but it was fairly subtle and not often mentioned. Now, don’t get me wrong; this is no sexual free-for-all. But characters definitely think about it and talk about it. And even do it. All without even a tinge of purple prose – which somehow makes it sexier.
I know that for the most part I am preaching to the choir. Kelly fans either have this book in hand, or soon will. If you’ve not yet tried Carla Kelly, prepare yourself for a treat. The Surgeon’s Lady is something out of the ordinary, and it’s a worthwhile, enjoyable read.