You remember exactly where you were for all of the important moments in your life. Your first kiss. Your first Dove Bar. And your first Carla Kelly book. For me, it was April 2000. I was visiting my friend Mary, a dedicated romance reader, in Seattle. She offered me a copy of Mrs. Drew Plays Her Hand. “I don’t read Regencies,” I said, rather condescendingly. “Try this one, I think you’ll like it,” she replied with a knowing smile.
Within the first chapter, I was hooked. This was not my mother’s Regency with its clichéd rakes and debutantes. Here were fascinating, realistic characters, some less than royal, many down on their luck, all of whom interacted and communicated intelligently. Within six months I had scoured the on-line market for tattered copies of Carla Kelly’s backlist, and was not disappointed with a single title. I still don’t read Regencies, but I make an exception whenever Ms. Kelly enlightens us with a new release. Not surprisingly, The Wedding Journey is a wonderful new entry from this unique author.
Our hero, Jesse Randall, is a Captain in Wellington’s army and an assistant surgeon in Marching Hospital Number Eight, stationed somewhere in Spain. A skilled physician but cursed with a shy disposition, Jesse has been in love with Elinore “Nell” Mason for several years. Nell, the daughter of ne’er-do-well Captain Bertie Mason, helps pay off her father’s debts by assisting with menial hospital duties. Afraid to admit his true feelings, Jesse admires Nell from afar, until a crisis forces his hand. Nell’s mother passes away, and the young woman attracts the unwelcome attention of a lecherous Major who informs Bertie that he will take Nell under his protection in exchange for canceling the man’s numerous debts. Displaying a boldness he never knew he had, Jesse offers to marry Nell before Major Bones can get his hands on her. With his nefarious plan thwarted, Bones takes revenge during a planned retreat by leaving behind the entire Hospital - staff and patients alike.
Now Jesse, his Chief Surgeon, Nell, and a motley pair of Privates are stuck in Spain with the French advancing towards them and the Spanish citizens distrustful allies at best. Can he lead Hospital Number Eight to safety in Portugal? And will he ever be a real husband to Nell, who thinks he has married her out of pity?
The novel’s title is ironic, in that a wedding journey implies a carefree lark. Unfortunately, Jesse and Nell face a much more difficult road. The story is fairly grim, with a significant amount of ugliness and death for a Regency. But this somber setting provides the backdrop for a remarkable display of character, as Jesse, the timid surgeon, comes into his own and displays increasing amounts of courage, cunning and leadership. His charming habit of having internal conversations with Hippocrates, his devotion to his profession and his love for Nell mark him as a true hero who deserves his happily-ever-after.
While much of the book’s point of view is seen through Jesse’s eyes, Kelly occasionally shows Nell’s side of the story. This is the novel’s only weakness. Although the reader admires Nell’s quiet dignity and courage, she lacks the sparkle that animated so many of Kelly’s earlier heroines, notably Lydia Perkins from With This Ring and my favorite, Roxana Drew. She’s not exactly a placeholder heroine, but at times she comes dangerously close. Other secondary characters, especially the two rapscallion Privates who accompany Jesse and prove that right and wrong are not always black and white, stand out with greater distinction.
You can’t fault the love story between Jesse and Nell. With such intense external peril, there is no need for much internal conflict or misunderstanding. As Jesse opens up, he proves to be the hero Nell needed but never realized was close at hand for so many years. As Nell settles into marriage she proves to be everything Jesse had dreamed of and more. Theirs is a sweet romance with a bit more sizzle than the usual Regency because, after all, they are married.
Although the novel is not at all light-hearted, there are flashes of humor that prevent it from becoming morbid. Jesse’s unquenchable spirit and dedication to healing even his enemies give the story an inspirational feeling without being preachy or overtly religious.
While I enjoyed last year’s One Good Turn, it was more of a sequel to the earlier Libby’s London Merchant than a stand-alone book, so I consider The Wedding Journey the first entirely new Kelly I have encountered since I was introduced to her almost three years ago. I owe a great debt to my friend Mary for presenting me with a writer of such rare magnitude, and of course an even greater one to Ms. Kelly for producing intelligent books about admirable characters facing complex situations. Go ahead and pick up this small but powerful novel, even if you’re not a Regency fan. You can’t get a better bargain for your five dollars, and you might just find yourself a convert as well.