Friday, March 4, 2011

Five Umbrella Friday: Captive Bride by Bonnie Dee

Red absolutely, positively must read this book. Despite telling me she's "over San Fransisco," she will love how well done the historical details are in this compelling tale. I'm so happy to share it with her (and all of you!).

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are times when I think that I might be a *bit* too generous with five star reviews, but then there are other times when five stars doesn't seem nearly enough to express just how much a particular work moved me. I know that AAR uses "desert isle keepers" and as I'm in the Pacific Northwest, I think I'll call it a monsoon-must. Bonnie Dee earned every point of this five star review with an emotional tale of forbidden longing and loneliness. It's 1870 and Huiann has come to San Fransisco from China marry a wealthy businessman only to learn that she's been deceived: her wealthy businessman is, in fact, a brothel owner and intends to sell Huiann to the highest bidder. Huiann manages to get free and runs away, right into Alan's general store. Alan owns a General Store in San Fransisco because it was the last stop on the train west, and after the Civil War, he just kept heading west in an effort to outrun his inner demons. He immediately does the right thing when Huiann appears and hides her--and I loved this about him. There was no second-guessing, no "are you sure you're really in trouble," no convincing needed--he grasped that she was in trouble, believed her, and hid her.

Alan is attracted to her from the beginning, but he fights very hard against this, because he knows what she's escaped from, and he's well-aware that there's no future for them. But he keeps her on as his housekeeper, and what follows is one the most unlikely and beautiful friendship-to-love stories. Early on, there is a scene where they have a conversation--each one speaking in his/her native tongue, completely unable to understand each other's words, yet revealing deep, painful secrets precisely because there is no chance of censor. And, actually, they understand each other perfectly. Dee manages to convey more emotion with a single glance or bowl of soup than many authors wring out of multi-page love scenes. When Alan and Huiann finally give into their passion, it is a beautiful union--these are some of the most loving, emotional love scenes I have read. Which is strange really, because love scenes should be filled with love, but oftentimes they serve a different purpose to the story. But, here it is all about unspoken love.

Dee captures 1870 San Fransisco remarkably well, but what I loved were all the day-to-day living details. I could easily picture the general store and the attached quarters that become Huiann's whole world for most of the novel. So often historical fiction gloss over unpleasant details, but Dee understands that the smell of the streets, the crowdedness of the courtyard which is anything but picturesque, the crumbly walls, and impossibility of doing laundry in a tiny space, all add immeasurably to the impact of this tale. I loved too that she didn't feel the need to give us a history lesson on San Fransisco--each detail included was relevant. So many late 1800s books set in SF feel the need to mention the opium trade even if it has no relevance to the plot. It's not relevant here, so Dee focuses on what is--small-time city politics, the Chinese sex-trade industry (which all things considered plays a very, very small role), general store operations, dress making, and food.

The realism continues with the character arcs. The language barrier persists throughout the book, which made everything feel more authentic. I have read many inter-cultural love stories where about 1/4 of the way through the book, suddenly one of the parties seems to locate a star trek transponder or decoder ring, and the parties are conversing as if they've always spoken each other's language. That's not the case here, and by keeping Huiann's acquisition of language gradual, Dee has to deliver through gestures and inner-thoughts. With such a hurdle, it would be easy to let the pacing suffer, but this was a fast read, with the backdrop of the risk to Huiann if she is discovered keeping the tension high. Dee moves us through several months seamlessly, which also felt authentic--these are two very shy, very lonely, very scarred individuals, and even though the attraction is there, they aren't going to act on it overnight.

She also managed to make them feel very true to their time period--Alan totally felt like an 1870's man, not a 2011 Alpha Male deluxe archetype inserted into a historical. Huiann doesn't suddenly become westernized, but she's also not a stereotypical Chinese woman of the time period. Her belief system doesn't change just because she loves Alan--it expands to incorporate him and vice versa. This was just beautifully handled. If you love Susan Wiggs's early historicals set in this time period, you will adore this book as she captures a similar tone and feel. If you love unusual love stories of any genre, you are in for a treat with this lovely tale. This is one of those books that I want to chase down my friends and MAKE them read it because I want more people to talk about it with.

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