To the Farthest Shore
Growing up, I read a lot of historical novels; among my favorites were the stories of Rosemary Sutcliff, Margaret Leighton and M.M. Kaye. I loved the rich detail in all of these ladies’ books and I adored how they could transport me to another time and place. Among present day writers few do that better than Elizabeth Camden. Her latest tale, To The Farthest Shores, conveys the reader to America in the early twentieth century and introduces us to the dangerous world of fledgling spies.
Jenny Bennett meets Lt. Ryan Gallagher at the start of the Spanish-American war. The two fall head over heels in love and all is bliss until he is sent overseas. Jenny anxiously awaits any communication from her beloved but for months, the only sound is silence. Then she gets the letter, more of a note really, containing just a few short sentences saying that they have no future and Ryan will not be returning to California. He wishes her the best. Naturally, she mourns, weeps and then does the practical thing of moving on with her life.
Don’t be silly, of course she doesn’t do that – this is a romance novel.
She remains at the Presidio where she works as a nurse and checks the death lists constantly, convinced something sinister has happened to her darling. When she sees him striding across the lawn of the naval yard one sunny afternoon six years later with a young child in tow, she is stunned.
Ryan had been passionately in love with Jenny but as an officer assigned to the Military Information Division (MID, the first official Intelligence division of the United States) he was at the beck and call of the government. He leaves Jenny because he is being sent to Japan. The son of missionaries, he had grown up there, surrounded by the culture and language of the area. He speaks and reads Japanese with the same fluency as English and his interest in pearls and knowledge of marine biology gives him the perfect cover for being ‘in country’. He ingratiates himself into the company of Japanese scientists attempting to cultivate pearls, somehow using his position to garner information to send back to his superiors in Washington. Ryan excels at the job and the assignment is made permanent. He immediately sends for Jenny.
Yeah, right. Romancelandia, remember?
He writes her a letter breaking all ties, marries a young Japanese woman and starts a family. But his wife’s death and a subsequent problem with his daughter creates a situation which forces him back to American shores. The re-posting is only temporary, though, and unless Ryan can train someone to replace him he will be heading back to Japan.
When he encounters Jenny at the Presidio, he is surprised. He was certain that the lovely young woman would have been married by now but realizes that this is his chance to win back the only lady he ever really loved. Of course, feisty Jenny is having none of it and the two exchange nothing but barbed comments until circumstances make them join forces. Together they will need to prepare Ryan’s replacement to go to Japan. Will seeing each other daily help them to find their way back to each other? Well, it’s a romance novel so I bet you can guess the answer to that.
The strong point of this tale is the historical background. From life on the Presidio to the art of culturing pearls, a clear picture is painted of America in the early twentieth century. It was fascinating to hear about nations we would easily dismiss now discussed as real threats to national security and even more interesting to hear about the art of early intelligence gathering. I was also captivated by the history of pearls and the struggle to, if not mass produce them, create an environment where mankind took some control over their conception.
Camden is a very experienced writer and that shows in her excellent prose and the overall construction of the story. The pacing is perfect and while the puzzles in this tale are the sort to be easily answered, the author handles them with such skill that they still add to the overall effectiveness of the story.
These positives make the book an easy, entertaining read but the characters keep it from shining. Ryan comes across as rather bumbling and clueless and we are told that he can be oblivious to the obvious. Given his career, I couldn’t imagine how he managed to stay alive in Japan for six months much less six years. He also has poor decision making skills and an inclination to act as though he’s powerless in his own life. In contrast, Jenny is strong and knows how to work situations to her advantage. She is also unable to let go of anything regarding her past – from the traumas of her childhood to her breakup with Ryan, this gal clings to her baggage like it’s designer brand and full of gold. She’s competent and can be caring but I had the feeling that her tendency toward angst would put a real cloud on her future. I liked them even less together – he brings out her shrewish, jealous side and she brings out his secretive nature. This is one of those rare novels where I found myself wishing the hero and heroine would fall in love with anyone but each other.
Typically, romances tend to be character driven and rely strongly on the reader falling for and rooting for the HEA of the hero and heroine. However, most Inspirational romances tend to rely as much on plotting as on characterization. That fact is the saving grace of this particular tale. The book is interesting enough and well written enough to be eminently readable even without a luscious love story. And speaking of the Inspirational aspect of this story, the faith issue here is so slight that you can blink and miss it. Issues such as forgiveness and mercy are discussed but mentions of God are few and far between. I struggled with that a little since Ryan is the son of missionaries and I would have expected a bit more of an outward expression of his faith. Each person reflects their religious beliefs differently and Ryan being more quiet about his made sense given his inclination to keep secrets.
To The Farthest Shore is an interesting, enjoyable novel revolving around a fascinating piece of American history. Weak romance notwithstanding it is a good story, if not a great one. I think fans of the author will be pleased with, but not overwhelmed by the book. I would strongly encourage those who haven’t read her previous works, however, to start elsewhere. Rose of Winslow Street, With Every Breath and Beyond All Dreams are all brilliantly written, provocative historical romances which do a bit of a better job showcasing the author’s talent.