There’s something about the Jungle Boy trope that’s enormously appealing to me. As a child, I devoured all of the Jungle Books, and Wild at Heart by Patricia Gaffney is one of my all-time favorite romances. Perhaps it’s the contradictory yet intriguing mixture of wildness and innocence present in both Mowgli and Michael. In Wild Thing, Anne Stuart serves up her own version of a Jungle Boy story, but although the story is entertaining, perhaps the format is too short to do the story full justice.
Dr. Elizabeth Holden is an anthropology and linguistics specialist hired by Edward J. Hunnicut, seventh richest man in the world. Apparently she’s supposed to study a mysterious “missing link” man who was captured on Ghost Island, a small, uninhabited landmass off the Australian Coast. Megalomaniacal billionaire that he is, Hunnicut dreams of winning a Nobel prize of some sort for scientific research and buys Ghost Island outright, isolating it with mines and building a high-tech lab so that the wild man can be monitored in a controlled habitat day and night.
Elizabeth is uncomfortable with the situation, especially when she meets the two “caretakers” of the lab, Alf Droggan and Mick Brown, two Cockney toughs hired to make sure the subject is drugged and compliant at all times. She becomes even more uncomfortable when she comes into contact with the subject, who’s a lot more beautiful than she expected and who shows evidence of physical abuse. The soft-hearted Elizabeth makes a momentous decision: she decides to help the man escape, even though she has heard some dark hints about the mysterious death of the scientist who preceded her. She doesn’t count on the wild man’s insistence on taking her into the jungle with him, however. And he isn’t quite what Elizabeth and the villains expect, of course, although most readers will see it coming from afar, lurching along inevitably with all the ungainliness of a clumsy man on stilts.
Wild Thing is an odd mish-mash of everything, but nothing receives adequate coverage. There’s a rushed feel to the whole story, and some aspects that deserved more exploration are ignored, such as the implications about discovering a wild man, the ethical considerations of treating a human as a test object, and, most importantly, the love story. Other aspects, such as Elizabeth’s musing about her miserable love life, go on and on and on without adding any more depth to her character. She and the wild man have interesting pasts that are merely hinted at, but because of space constraints, it’s all skimmed over very briefly. Elizabeth comes across as rather whiny (if essentially good-hearted), whereas the wild man is cardboardesque – his internal workings are revealed only in the latter half of the book, and that only in sporadic bursts.
I also thought that the depiction of the wild-man scenario wasn’t very convincing. I thought Elizabeth, as an anthropologist, should have been able to identify what the wild man was pretty quickly, jet lag notwithstanding. Her observations struck me as those of an amateur, not a trained scientist.
An Anne Stuart story is still an Anne Stuart story, though, which makes up for many of the flaws. The plot moves along very quickly, and it’s tremendously entertaining in a shallow, underdeveloped way. The interaction between the hero and heroine contains the classic Stuart push-pull elements: the woman is in denial, sexually repressed and mildly neurotic, while the man is determined to make the woman enjoy her own body and is only marginally less neurotic. The romance itself isn’t quite convincing because the timeline is so abbreviated: the main story happens over the space of less than a week.
Overall, Stuart has done a better; Wild Thing is fun but a bit of a disappointment. The short format just doesn’t do justice to the ideas and potential contained within this book.