Friday, June 6, 2014

Her Defiant Heart by Jo Goodman

My Experience: B
Synopsis:  When Civil War veteran and hero Christian Marshall attempts to aid a mysterious young woman escaping a New York City asylum, he is reminded that good intentions count for nothing and painful memories are best drown in a good bottle of whiskey and the arms of a whore.
Jenny Holland discovers the respite and refuge she needs at Marshall House. To remain in this sanctuary and protect her life-and-death secrets, she must make herself necessary to its master. But serving at the will and pleasure of such a dark and dangerous man might not be enough, and her attempts to heal his wounds will expose her own.

This is a Special Author's Cut Edition of Midnight Princess (1989) with an author note:  The story held up, I thought (rather immodestly), but the hero did not. He needed to find a gentler side. I used so many exclamation points on the first go round that it seemed he was shouting at everyone. More judicious punctuation had a moderating affect on his disposition, if not his drinking. Oh, he is still a brooding, wounded soul in need of healing, angry certainly, impulsive often, but with more awareness of his demons this time. What I could not repair with word choice or character insight, I left in the capable hands of the heroine and my faith in happily ever after.

If I could carry only 100 books on my reader [thank God that thought is just a nightmare], 10 of them would be Jo Goodman's. You cannot imagine my squee of happiness when scrolling through a newsletter I discovered two of her books have been re-issued.  Two that I haven't read!   Yes, it has a Man-Boob cover but I'm trying [not very hard obviously] to get over That Issue.  And ... I wish the synopsis [previous and current] didn't sound like a porn movie.  [someone out there with a Degree and Big Income no doubt has statistics proving readers are like Pavlov's dogs, easily conditioned to spend our money on waxed chests and innuendo.]

For the record, I bought the book in spite of the cover and blurb.  I was not disappointed and agree with Ms. Goodman's statement that the story held up, but can't comment on Christian's former characterization as I was deep in the toddler years when this came out.  I see glimmers of West and Breckenridge in him and since they are two of my favorite heroes, I was quite, quite happy!  After all, there will probably never be another Restell Gardner. I've almost accepted that.

Never one to dawdle about, Ms.Goodman literally tosses the reader in to the middle of the story.  It is one of the many things I enjoy about her work.  That her writing is atmospherically perfect and her ear for dialog so eerily well-paced is forgotten as you are completely drawn in to the story.  Ms. Goodman had not hit her stride in witty, dark dialog in this book, but you can hear the development underway. Her secondary characters are fleshed out and worthy of being in the story.  The villains here are predictable. But that's OK, there are times I like me some plain ole bad guys in fiction.  She chose NYC for this tale and it works well.  The formula demanded of writers Back in the Day is a bit more obvious in comparison with the formulas currently followed by writers.  I enjoyed spotting them.  This in no way detracted from the story itself or my enjoyment thereofheretoforewithin.

The premise of this book, involuntary commitment with little or no legalities required, was not fiction in 1866. What we consider human experimentation was equally as legal and even encouraged.  Limits, monitoring, and consent did not exist in any form and many of the experiments/studies were designed to produce expected outcomes that supported a theory.  The DSM is built on these foundations. I wonder if anyone but Ms. Goodman ever thinks about that....

Jenny Holland was literally delivered to and expected to vanish inside just such a place.  Within six weeks, she was nearly at the end of her physical resistance, surviving on all that remained of her fight or flight instinct.  Her sixth so-called treatment is what Christian Marshall is forced to observe, pretending to be writing an article for the newspaper he owns.   Needless to say, as a sane person, the facility, the attitudes and the treatments make him sick, literally.  He's promised his friend, a young doctor on staff, to observe, to be seen by this woman so they can pave the way for her escape.  Jenny Holland seizes opportunity and makes good her own escape.  Fortunately for her, the horse she borrows takes her someplace safe.

That someplace is Marshall House.  Between the housekeeper, Mrs. B, the young doctor Turner, and Christian, her case of frostbite, is treated quickly enough to prevent further harm.  As to her emotional and mental well being, that remains to be seen, after she's rested, after she's nourished, after she awakens enough to know who she is and where she belongs.  Christian agrees, she should remain there, for now but he's not happy about it.  His family dead, his art haunted by the war and all it cost him, burdened with obligations to those depending on The Chronicle, Christian does what he must.  Going through the motions of existence, but his heart is not in it.   He's sure he's better off feeling nothing.

The subtext of just whose heart is defiant is worthy of a nod here, as are my nit picks with this book.

Frankly, it is extremely difficult to make a drunk a sympathetic, never mind a heroic, character for me.  That said, I did believe the events and character dynamics presented were plausible for an "accidental addiction."  Like meds prescribed for pain in this day and age, the line between help and harm is very skinny.  I felt sympathy for Christian.  The battering his soul has taken accounted for the stupidity by a supposedly intelligent man that latched on to alcohol to cope.  Even so, he spends about a third of the book with one toe on the border of hero land for me before he steps back, plants his feet and snares my acceptance.  His sobriety wasn't enough, at least not for me, it took a great deal more.

Worse was the idea Christian would be turned on by a tortured prisoner. I have to admit, this cost credibility leeway for me.  Reality tells me, when it comes to physical attraction:  bruises, frostbite, obviously malnourished, plus fugue states where reality in the moment and former torment are indistinguishable are not high on the list of turn-ons.  He is disgusted by his desire and response but still....  I just didn't buy he'd even be tempted, drunk or sober, unless he *wasn't* a hero.  Men are visual creatures, or so we're told, and the visuals given were not alluring or enticing, just saying.

Christian and Jenny dance around their attraction.  He doesn't chase her or fondle her in corners, she doesn't waffle and give mixed signals, so my complaints are all about the lack of true connection between them, not about the old skool tropes.  Things reach a crisis when Jenny invades his studio.  Of course, there's anger and near rape and then The Strangest Dialog ev-ah about being a mistress and painting a portrait.  Then, they have good bye sex.  Oh, he doesn't believe that's what it is, not even when Jenny tells him flat out:

"That is not what tonight is about. It is about goodbye." Christian did not believe her, but he didn't tell her that. The surest way to force her out the door was to inform her he believed she was bluffing. He had every intention of keeping her with him until he decided their odd, strangely satisfying, relationship was at an end.

In the morning, she's gone.

Christian - and the reader - realizes he knows nothing about her.

"Jenny's told us precious little about herself—next to nothing, in fact. What Scott and I think we know is mainly supposition, and even that is full of contradiction. Neither of us believes she is mad, but if she were held in that lunatic ward against her will, why has she never said so?"
Susan shrugged. "Perhaps she is afraid to talk about her experience. Why would she want to hold such an ugly memory up to the light? I should think you would be able to sympathize with her on that count."
"I want to know she is safe," he said. 
 "Do you love her, Christian?" Susan asked, watching him closely. 
"No, Susan, I don't love her. That would be..." His voice trailed off. "No, I don't love her."

Ironically, THAT was the moment he stepped back, planted his uncertain feet in hero territory and stunned not only Susan but also me.  I didn't think he'd pull it off.  He knows enough about life and himself to admit calling physical desire and mutual curiosity love at that point would be insane.  He IS as intelligent as the everyone insists, as brutally honest with himself as the booze implied, as able to stop and consider what needs to be done as a man that survived a war and the loss of his entire family would.  Yeah, I bounced in my chair with unseemly joy!

Which brings me to Jenny Holland.  I see glimmers of Emma and Olivia in Jenny, unfortunately, her story is told in an info dump instead of through the story.  Something Ms. Goodman excels at in later books. I could see the difficulty trying to lay the ground work for The Marshall Brothers and threading in Jenny's background at the same time but she is literally a body and response to stimuli for half the book.  We learn more of Dr. Turner and his wife before we get the puzzle pieces of Jenny and that bothered me because what was there for Christian to be fascinated by aside from her physical presence and housekeeping skills [does any man give a poo about that until he's knee deep in dust and can't find a coffee cup without mold?  Other than Monk I mean].  Only her beauty and violent fugues set her apart from Mary Margaret, the other maid. The implication that the puzzle of Jenny is what holds his interest is spoken of but it doesn't really hold water since he only probes her sexual response, not her secrets.

I believe woman are stronger than history or our children give us credit for.  However, I had a very difficult time believing Jenny was functioning so well, so quickly.  I was thankful for the few glimpses of her night terrors and horror of water and being restrained.  Frequently the dark past or tragic incident in a character's bio is little more than a fact once the story begins.  There's no fall out to live with, no difficulties to overcome but the conflicts to lurv. That is not true in this book. However, each incident [except one] was used to advance the sexual tension and that I resented, deeply.  I felt manipulated by the distractions of devolving from trauma to sex when I really, really wanted to know more about Jenny than she had secrets and a curious attraction to Christian.  He was aware enough of her to later sketch and paint Jenny in all her moods and expressions but we didn't get to see those in the story.

"Jenny worried her lower lip as she studied the sketches. They were disturbing because of what they revealed to Jenny about herself. She had not expected to feel this exposed by Christian's work. She wasn't aware that he had watched her so closely or perhaps knew her so well. It was disconcerting to think that he might know more about her character than she knew herself."

Reciprocally, she learned about him via others and his art.  Their interaction prior to him finding her in hiding later in the book did not truly justify the declarations that so swiftly follow.  Fortunately, there were still chapters to go, mysteries to solve, bad guys to nail and TIME for the declarations to become realistic.  And that's why this book has such a high mark from me.  The sex was rushed, the Romance was not.  The second half of the book was perfectly paced, the hero redeemed himself and the heroine obtained dimensions she lacked.  It is totally worth the read and price, I recommend it for when you're wanting a little edge to your romance.  

You might be interested in:
Elizabeth Packard is mentioned in this book.
Three Years Imprisonment by Elizabeth Packard with an appeal to the government to so change the laws as to afford legal protection to married women (1870)

No comments:

Post a Comment