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REVIEW: The Surgeon’s Lady by Carla Kelly

Dear Mrs. Kelly,

the-surgeons-lady1 I’ve been a fan of yours for years. Back “in the day” when the traditional Regency still ruled and I could look forward to a book a year from your pen – or typewriter or hard drive – I was living the good life. But then came the bad years, the years when that line of books was dropped and we Kelly fans had to content ourselves with slowly doling out the few unread books of yours in our stashes. Then bliss! Three books due out this year and the old song “Anticipation” began running through my brain.

“The Surgeon’s Lady” picks up where “Marrying the Captain” left off. It’s a few months later and Nana Worthy has reached out to her two half siblings – all of them the illegitimate daughters of a true slime ball. But where Nana had a home to flee to when daddy dearest offered her to clear his latest gambling debts, Laura, the eldest, had no one to champion her. She suffered through a marriage from hell which was finally cut short when her much older husband died after years of invalidity.

Laura finally has the courage to read Nana’s letter and, before she can talk herself out of it, decides to visit her new found sister. It’s here that she meets Surgeon Philemon Brittle, son of Oliver Worthy’s sailing master. Phil has seen many wounded people during his career as a Navy surgeon but few as emotionally damaged as Laura. Can he persuade her to take a second chance on marriage even as he turns her into a ward matron at the busy Plymouth Naval Hospital?

After reading the first book, I had the impression that the elder daughter had become some man’s mistress however this was quickly dispelled on page one. But though Laura had been married, she still suffered from her husband’s verbal abuse and physical efforts to get an heir on her. I wouldn’t have blamed her for settling into a well deserved widowhood and enjoying the estate and money left to her.

But Laura wants and needs to feel needed. To know that she’s making a difference. And she is offered plenty of chances once Philemon gets his hands on her – so to speak. She can’t say that she doesn’t know what the job will entail after the first afternoon visiting some of the injured men from Oliver’s ship which sank after a run in with a French ship of the line. Lots and lots of body fluids, near death and the heartbreak of seeing men cut down in their prime by war.

Philemon and his fellow surgeons and mates have to deal with what has plagued military medical personnel to this day – too many wounded, too many dying, too little staff, too few supplies, and a bureaucracy more interested in penny pinching and rank pulling then in helping those who answered their country’s call during wartime. The more things change the more they stay the same.

But it’s Laura who helps ease his mind and heart by listening to his venting, by helping on the wards and by slowly, tentatively, returning his love. If she had immediately fallen for him and jumped into the sack, I would have been crying foul given her marital history. As it is, poor Philemon is a candidate for sainthood for being willing to wait out her fears of saying “yes” much less agreeing to be his wife in all senses of the word. But once she’s over her reluctance, wow do these two enjoy themselves. While never depicted in a sordid or purple fashion, we clearly see that their marital relations are rocking the house.

The medical aspects of the book are realistic without being too gory. And I find myself amazed that anyone could survive the horrific wounds of battle given the state of medical knowledge of the time. As Philemon says, his opportunities to deliver babies are a nice and welcome break from pronouncing death at the hospital even if he pisses Nana off by grabbing a few well earned hours of sleep while she waits for her contractions to intensify.

One thing I wondered about is how easily Laura takes to her new job. Sure she has one or two moments when she breaks down crying over the stress but I can’t help but think of the long delayed PTSD suffered by the medical staff of Vietnam who faced similar situations. Okay, okay, this is a romance and I shouldn’t let Lynda Van Devanter’s biography influence me but it does.

And would all of Laura’s servants have been willing to leave their comfy positions at her estate to nurse, cook for and what-not the sailors? All of them? I’ll be honest and say that at one point, I was convinced that someone had replaced all the hardened Navy tars in the hospital with choirboys. The wounded men were just so sweet and kind and grateful to Laura. It felt way too Disney. Then you tossed in a subplot that dispelled this to some degree. Though I hated to see Laura in danger, it added a bit more realism in an age when captains controlled the tougher elements on their ships with the lash.

But as frightening as this event was for Laura, the worst thing for her has to be what Philemon demands of her when the jolly boats finally bring her face to face with her past. I would have hated him for a moment too. And still think that the slime ball got off too easily. But Laura and Nana are at least at peace now which has to help them finally close that chapter of their lives.

As Nana learned that “everything fits” in the last book so Laura learns that “everything can be washed off” in this one. As well, she discovers that she’s met and married the one man she can trust in a world in which she’s never been able to trust anyone to be on her side. Though Philemon and Laura both come off as too noble at times, watching them champion each other felt like a balm and massage after a hard day. Soothing and satisfying. B

~Jayne

This book can be purchased in mass market from an independent bookstore or ebook format from the Sony Store and other etailers.

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

14 Comments

  1. Aoife
    Jun 09, 2009 @ 15:16:15

    Jayne, thanks so much for this review. I think it captured perfectly both the things I enjoyed about The Surgeon’s Lady, as well as the things that bothered me. While I liked Laura as a character a lot (and loved Philemon, who wouldn’t!) I’m not totally sure I understand her quick transition from a life as a peer’s daughter and peer’s wife, to her life as a ward matron. I went along with it, but every once in a while something niggled at me. It would have made more sense to me if it had been Nana cast as ward matron, because at least she had had experience of hard physical labor, whereas Laura had led a life of relative physical ease.

    I’m looking forward to the third sister’s book, and am hoping that after that Carla Kelly has a contract for either another series or several stand alones.

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  2. Jayne
    Jun 09, 2009 @ 15:32:46

    Aoife, the only way her work on the ward made sense to me is that she had done – what was it? – three years of nursing for her invalid husband. But even then, she was caring for only one man and had a house full of servants to help her. And she was caring for her husband, no matter what she thought of him. For a Regency era woman to take so easily to such intimate care of men who were strangers to her – that was a stop and think, “hmmmmm?” moment for me. And to suddenly be faced with the fresh wounded from the ships – nothing in her past could have prepared her for that aspect of the job. I guess she’s just supposed to be a natural nurse.

    But I too am looking forward to sister number three. Though it would seem that a great deal of time will have to elapse after the events of book two before she’s ready to marry. I can’t recall her exact age but mid teens seems to ring a bell.

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  3. Aoife
    Jun 09, 2009 @ 15:51:57

    Aoife, the only way her work on the ward made sense to me is that she had done – what was it? – three years of nursing for her invalid husband. But even then, she was caring for only one man and had a house full of servants to help her. And she was caring for her husband, no matter what she thought of him. For a Regency era woman to take so easily to such intimate care of men who were strangers to her – that was a stop and think, “hmmmmm?” moment for me. And to suddenly be faced with the fresh wounded from the ships – nothing in her past could have prepared her for that aspect of the job.

    Exactly. I helped my mother in a very small way with some of her physical needs when she was dying, and there is no way that I would be prepared to do the kind of nursing Laura seemed to do effortlessly with a large group of total (and probably not too clean) strangers. It was just one of the things that caused a hitch in the reading experience for me, but it didn’t prevent me from enjoying other aspects of the story very much.

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  4. Jayne
    Jun 09, 2009 @ 15:55:14

    and probably not too clean) strangers.

    Ah yes, the real reason for Philemon’s buzz cut!

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  5. Marianne McA
    Jun 09, 2009 @ 17:11:29

    I really enjoyed the book. I didn’t feel that Laura had lived a life of comparative ease: hadn’t she spent some time in the workhouse, or am I imagining things? I suppose I did think of her as a natural nurse, a Florence Nightingale or Mary Seacole type of person.
    Oddly enough, the thing that worried me was the profiteroles – my husband makes these sometimes, and it seems such a faff: I had imagined the kitchens at the hospital as being fairly primitive, and I couldn’t reconcile my ideas about the kitchens with my ideas about profiteroles – isn’t it funny what will throw you out of a book?

    (For all I know the profiteroles are historically accurate: I imagine Kelly researches carefully. But I still can’t imagine it.)

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  6. Jayne
    Jun 09, 2009 @ 18:32:11

    She had been in a Methodist orphanage for a few years then was sent to Miss Pym’s school. I agree that profiteroles would seem to be an extravagance of time when trying to cook for that many men.

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  7. Solange Ayre
    Jun 10, 2009 @ 07:28:47

    I just read the book (Carla Kelly = automatic buy). The nursing aspect didn’t bother me. Look at how the high-class, sheltered Victorian ladies all volunteered in the Atlanta hospital in “Gone with the Wind.” There were no professional, trained nurses in the early 19th century. Wounded men were nursed by surgeons’ and physicians’ mates (assistants), nuns, or camp-followers.

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  8. Danielle
    Jun 10, 2009 @ 10:21:58

    I really liked this book. Not as much as Marrying the Captain (I adored that book) but liked it a lot. I thought Laura and Phil were sweet. And I loved reading about the nitty gritty part of early medical intervention (didnt think I would)

    But…..

    SPOILERS – the father? That part just pissed me off. He deserved nothing. The man sold or attempted to sell his daughters. Tried to put Nana in a Spanish prison camp. I think I would have smothered him with a pillow. LOL. END SPOILERS

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  9. Jacqueline L.
    Jun 10, 2009 @ 10:27:01

    Oh, excellent timing. My copy of Marrying the Captain arrived in the mail this morning. I hadn’t realised The Surgeon's Lady continues where the previous book leaves off. I’ll have to go pick up a copy.

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  10. Jayne
    Jun 10, 2009 @ 11:15:52

    I would have wanted to smother the SOB too but Philemon’s actions make sense from his perspective as a doctor. You might not want to, but you do what has to be done for the patient. Plus Laura and Nana will know they made the magnanimous gesture and, hopefully, can put him behind them now. Me, I’d still be looking for a pillow….

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  11. Aoife
    Jun 10, 2009 @ 13:50:42

    SPOILERS – the father? That part just pissed me off. He deserved nothing. The man sold or attempted to sell his daughters. Tried to put Nana in a Spanish prison camp. I think I would have smothered him with a pillow. LOL. END SPOILERS

    I agree, but I never saw this as Lord Rat-whatever deserving something as much as I saw it as Laura and Nana getting a chance for closure. They will never have to second guess their actions, have regrets, waste thier time hating him, or even have a memory of their father as a totally unredeemed person. By giving him a chance to express his regret, they were free to move on without carrying the burden of hating him. I thought Carla Kelly did this part very, very well. And, I also thought that this was very sound from a psychological perspective.

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  12. JennyME
    Jun 10, 2009 @ 16:53:11

    Great review! I think you nailed it.

    I was a bit exhausted after finishing this book–all the endless descriptions of life at the hospital and the bloody aprons and gore and sleepless nights just wore me out. I do love Carla Kelly’s knack for including grittier elements in some of her books, though. (Maybe the relentlessly kind protagonists balance it out.)

    I did crave more motivation for Laura’s decision to work at the hospital, since ultimately it seemed more like a grim obligation/patriotic duty than a discovery of her calling (and I had the feeling it was the opposite for Philemon).

    But over all I liked it quite a bit and am looking forward to the next book.

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  13. Jayne
    Jun 10, 2009 @ 17:06:48

    I was a bit exhausted after finishing this book-all the endless descriptions of life at the hospital and the bloody aprons and gore and sleepless nights just wore me out. I do love Carla Kelly's knack for including grittier elements in some of her books, though. (Maybe the relentlessly kind protagonists balance it out.)

    I remember, years ago, hearing that Carla Kelly has had experience working with patients before – either in a nursing home or hospital setting. So the medical aspects of her scenes involving patients have always read realistically to me. She has another great doctor character in one of the stories in the “Here’s to the Ladies” anthology – which I also noted she used as a line in this book.

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  14. Sadie
    Jul 12, 2009 @ 15:01:42

    I think the book is medically accurate and I’m a doctor. I think the descriptions were necessary for the development of the characters–so you felt what they felt and understood what they were experiencing. Also, so you would respect them for being able to do the work.

    Being in an orphanage at that time was almost always synonymous with being in a work house. The taxes at the time were extremely regressive, regressive meaning the less money you paid, the higher percentage of your income you paid in tax. So the government had no way to pay for the care of poor people, especially poor people who were not dependent on a working white male protestant. So the orphanages had to make the children work–there was no other way to pay for their food and lodging. Also, children in orphanages rarely had a balanced diet and many were sick. I can’t think of many places worse than an orphanage of that time–so I wasn’t surprised that Laura was able to adjust to a matron’s job.

    Does anybody know who the cover models are? I really like this picture. The man reminds me of a younger Raymond Burr. I’m a sucker for handsome Irishmen (which Burr was). Brittle is a derivation of a Norman name.

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