REVIEW: The Surgeon’s Lady by Carla Kelly
Dear Mrs. Kelly,
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