REVIEW: Beau Crusoe by Carla Kelly
Dear Ms. Kelly,
I have enjoyed several of your books in the past, so I rejoiced to hear that you had a new book coming out. Beau Crusoe is the story of James Trevenen, a naval officer shipwrecked on a deserted island where he spent five years in isolation. To hold on to his sanity, James began observing a subspecies of crabs that he named the Gloriosa Jubilate, and wrote a treatise about them.
After his rescue by missionaries, James returned home to find his mother had died. He retired to his estate in Cornwall, but when the Royal Society wanted to award him the Copley medal for his treatise on the crabs, James decided to come to London for a two-week stay, during which he will receive the medal.
Beau Crusoe begins when the eccentric (some might even say kooky) Lord and Lady Watchmere prepare to host James in their London home at the request of Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Academy. Lord Watchmere wants his daughter, Susannah, to act as James's escort. Years earlier Susannah ran off to Gretna Green with her father's secretary. The two of them then sailed to India, where Susannah's husband died in a cholera epidemic, leaving the pregnant Susannah to return home.
Now, Susannah and by extension her young son Noah are persona non grata to the ton, and Susannah's family has not forgiven her for the scandal she caused. Susannah's sister Loisa is particularly angry at Susannah, whom she blames for depriving her of the chance at finding a husband of her own. Loisa's anger is directed not only at Susannah, but even at Susannah's child.
At the same time, James is on his way to London when he helps a dandy, Sir Percival, put out a minor fire. Sir Percival is convinced that James saved his life and he dubs James "Beau Crusoe–? and determines to repay the favor. James meanwhile is haunted by the ghost of one of the men he sailed with before his shipwreck. He literally sees the specter who reminds him of a painful and traumatic time.
When James arrives in London, he is drawn to Susannah but taken aback when her godfather, Sir Joseph Banks, charges him with three tasks to accomplish in his two weeks in London: Get rid of the toucans in Lord Watchmere's foyer, do something about Loisa, and marry Susannah.
Between them, James and Susannah agree that two weeks is far too short a time to fall in love, but it isn't long before James releases the toucans and does something about Loisa– and before Susannah realizes that underneath his capable exterior James suffers deeply, and that she wants to help him cope with that pain.
As usual, you write with the clarity, precision and smoothness that make reading your words a pleasure. You also create sympathetic characters in both James and Susannah. James' struggle to hold on to his sanity is portrayed with psychological insight and I shared Susannah's desire to see him overcome the torment his past caused him.
Susannah's young son, Noah, was a delightful character and the bond between mother and son came across beautifully. I was less delighted by Loisa; her quick transformation from a woman who had spent years angry not only at her sister but also at her sister's child to a loyal advocate to Susannah was not convincing to me.
I liked the character of Sir Joseph Banks and enjoyed the inclusion of the Royal Academy and the Admiralty in the story. These are aspects of the Regency that I haven't seen portrayed very often.
My least favorite character was Lady Audley, with whom James had a fling on board ship on his way back to England. There were no shades of gray in this character, and I really would have liked some. I couldn't help but feel that Lady Audley was being condemned for being sexually active and assertive.
The details of James' past trauma were extremely disturbing, and even though I sympathized with James I did not enjoy reading about what had happened to him. I did like the details of his survival on his island and the ways he kept himself sane, such as reciting the articles of war. I would have liked more details of life on that island, not only because it would have been interesting, but because I felt that those five years should have been more prominent in James's mind.
Some of humor involving Sir Percival and his mother was quite funny, but I also felt that other attempts at humor, such as a scene involving a cat, fell flat for me. The humorous elements did not always mesh well with the gritty ones.
The relationship between Susannah and James did not feel as romantic as I had hoped it would. I had the impression that Susannah was mothering James much of the time, and that he was seeking comfort from her more than true love.
Lastly, I felt that James and Susannah made a very hasty decision at the end of the book about how to live out the next few years, something that would have required more thought and discussion for them given all that they had been through. The ending of the book left me with some doubts about James’s ability to recover from the truama that haunted him.
The writing itself and some of the characterization in Beau Crusoe is truly superior, but I did not enjoy the book as much as I wish I had. Back in March Jayne reviewed this book and gave it a B, and I regret that my own grade for Beau Crusoe is lower, a C+. Still, I am very glad to see you writing again, and look forward to your next book.