I haven’t read a Hedlund romance in a long time, not since 2013’s Rebellious Heart, a loose telling of Abigail and John Adams’s courtship and marriage (which I loved, btw). The Bride Ship, Book One, has a compelling historical context: a bride ship, in 1862, headed for Vancouver Island and British Columbia with poor women on board preparing to become the wives of the sparse-of-women British colony. One of them is heroine Mercy Wilkins, an angel of “mercy”, a gem, a flower, from the London slums. When we meet Mercy, she hurries towards the Shoreditch Dispensary with an ill child. Instead of the kindly, but getting-on Dr. Bates, a new, handsome doctor (more of him later) is ministering to the poorest of the poor, like Mercy, like the baby in her arms, like everyone in this wretched neighbourhood. When Mercy’s family has to eject yet another of her mother’s many children, Mercy, in hopes she can help her sister Patience leave the workhouse and at Patience’s urging, agrees to board the bride-ship.
Who is on board as ship’s surgeon but the young doctor she met in the dispensary, Joseph Colville, Lord Colville, Baron of Wiltshire. Throughout the long, difficult voyage, Joseph and Mercy are drawn to each other; at first, by necessity, as Mercy’s lack of seasickness leaves her free to assist Joseph; then, by friendship; eventually, by love and powerful attraction. Joseph and Mercy have so much against their being together. Neither wants to marry and both have numbed their feelings to survive emotional and, in Mercy’s case, physical, suffering. Joseph lost his family to cholera and is fleeing his grief by travelling the world and avoiding his lordly duties in England. Mercy, having watched her mother struggle to survive, negligent of her children (though Hedlund, to her credit, doesn’t play the evil mother card, Twiggy, Mercy’s mother, is feckless and ignorant, but not deliberately cruel) vows never to marry. Twiggy did what many women in her position had to. Mercy swears to never marry, having witnessed what marriage means, mouths one can’t feed and doesn’t have the strength, time, or energy to mourn. Two young souls, Mercy and Joseph, despite their differing social standing, find affection, mutual respect, admiration for each other’s strengths, and an overwhelming passion (to which they don’t succumb because this is an inspie after all).
The first half of Hedlund’s novel is stronger than the second. Her sympathetic description of the London slums, the tempest-tossed voyage, and Joseph and Mercy’s work ministering to the ship’s passengers make for powerful stuff. In particular, there’s one wonderful scene when Joseph and Mercy are thrown together, literally thanks to the sea’s roughness, that is sexy and moving, without anything by way of sexy times. While I enjoyed Hedlund’s descriptions and historical context, I can’t say I much liked her protagonists. Mercy is too good to be true: her ministering angel to all and sundry pushed the boundaries of believability. While I enjoy sentimentality and melodrama à la Little Nell, I wished would shut up with her exclamations of “blessed angel” and “little lamb”. It brought out the sarcastic curled lip in me. I liked Joseph better, believed in his emotional quandary: losing your family is HARD and being left quite alone as he was, no wonder he ran. Like Mercy, he was all about restraint and giving, but I liked it when he had to control those base instincts when Mercy innocently raised her baby blues at him.
The second half of Hedlund’s romance grew tedious as Joseph and Mercy skirted their love and desire. I never bought either of their reasons for staying apart, but Hedlund had an didactic axe to grind in keeping them apart, an axe too oft repeated in inspirational romance and which I find utterly weird and historically skewed. Firstly, in a general sense, as Joseph and Mercy grapple with God and His purpose for them, it’s hard to believe in the terms in which they think. They sound like evangelical Christians, not Victorians, which is what they are. Sometimes, the light “God” touch as in the Griep I just read can work and sometimes it induces eye rolls. Too bad the latter was truer of Reluctant Bride. Secondly, Hedlund wanted to bring home the point that an aristocratic class system, as Mercy and Joseph would’ve been a part of, breaks the idea that people are created equal. She uses Mercy and Joseph’s cross-class differences to illustrate this theological point. This makes sense, but it doesn’t diminish the novel’s finger-wagging propensities. Though I enjoyed parts of Hedlund’s Reluctant Bride, I can’t say I’ll be on board for Bride Ships two. With Miss Austen, we say Reluctant Bride “had a high claim to forebearance,” Emma.
Jody Hedlund’s A Reluctant Bride is published by Bethany House Publishers. It was released on June 4th and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Bethany House, via Netgalley.