The China Bride takes a few bold steps that only a veteran author
like Mary Jo Putney would be allowed to take. The heroine is
Eurasian. The book is set partly in China. An intriguing setting and
delightful heroine don’t entirely make up for the cookie-cutter hero, but
readers may be so engrossed in the unusual that they may not notice.
The book is told in alternating present/flashback format. The story opens
with Troth Montgomery’s arrival at Warfield Park, an estate in
England. She is there to see Lord Grahame, and to bring bad tidings. For
Troth is the widow of Kyle Renbourne, twin brother of Lord Grahame. It’s
Troth who receives the greater shock when she sees Dominic Renbourne and
looks into the face of a dead man.
Troth is the child of a Chinese woman and a Scottish merchant. In
flashback, we find that she has spent the last fifteen years, since the
death of her parents, working as a translator for her wealthy Chinese
merchant uncle and dressing as a boy. Her own Chinese name, Mei-Lian, has
been replaced by “Jin Kang”. As Jin, she can travel through the worst
parts of Canton, assisting the Fan-qui, or foreign devils, as the
English traders are called.
When adventurous Kyle Renbourne enters Mei-Lian’s life, he quickly
discovers she’s a woman and is strangely attracted to her. Kyle’s first
wife and only love is dead, and he is sure he’ll never love again or
remarry. But when he begs Me-Lian to take him inland to the forbidden
Temple of Hoshan, he dressed as an old man and Mei-Ling in her disguise as
a boy, events unfold that bring them together as lovers. Their discovery
leads to Kyle’s arrest and imprisonment. He does the honorable thing and
marries Mei-Ling in the old-fashioned Scottish way, not expecting to
live. Indeed, as Mei-Ling makes her escape the next day, she hears the
firing squad shooting at Kyle.
Mei-Ling decides to leave China behind and travel to England, to deliver
the news of Kyle’s death herself. She’s accepted at Warfield Park, and
life settles into a quiet routine. Until the day someone totally
China comes alive under the skilled pen of Ms. Putney. All of the small
details that bring it vividly to life are interwoven in the story, with the
result that China is far more vivid than bleak northern England. It’s
almost a character in itself.
Mei-Ling/Troth is portrayed as a lonely woman who dreams of love but never
really believes she’ll find it, and is willing to settle for her
independence instead. Admirable and sympathetic, she draws us into her
thoughts easily and carries us with her on her journey. This is a heroine
worth rooting for.
Unfortunately, Kyle is pretty much the same-old, same-old. The “I’ll never
love again” hero often comes across as though he’s stuck in an emotional
time warp, which can be interesting if there is introspection to go along
with it, but here he pretty much wallows for the whole book in his belief
that his lost wife is his only shot at love, even when his feelings for
Troth are staring him in the face. This sort of clinging to an old love
business carries more than a hint of melodrama, and I found Kyle more
irritating than interesting. After much non-communication, a bit of
suspense is thrown in at the end to bring a resolution, and it seemed forced.
The upshot of The China Bride is that the heroine is wonderful, the
settings are so vivid they are all but three-dimensional, and the hero runs
a distant third in the polls. Curl up and share Mei-Ling’s
journey. You’ll be glad you got to know her.