We’re back to our regularly scheduled programming.
If Susan Wiggs’ Charm School was an ice cream, it would be a pina colada dream. For a book that begins in stuffy, pre-civil war Boston, Charm School is surprisingly decadent and exotic.
Isadora Peabody is the ugly duckling of her fashionable, rich family. She’s awkward, bookish, and worst of all, she hates herself. This self-hatred was a hard pill for me to swallow. Usually my awkward,bookish heroines love themselves enough to do what makes themselves happy, but Isadore loathes that she doesn’t fit in and can’t please her mother etc. etc. Her inner monologues are hard to bare for about half of the book.
Captain Ryan Calhoun is a charming southern rogue–who is given depth in his determination to reunite his best friend Journey (who happened to be Ryan’s former slave) and Journey’s wife and children. Ryan is basically a peacock who could be annoying, but he has that whole slavery-is-bullshit-and-I’m-going-to-do-something-about-it-thing going for him.
Isadora bullies her way into a role on Ryan’s ship because she knows she is drowning in Boston; she is having vaguely suicidal thoughts and realizes it’s time to get out of there. Ryan is drawn to her from the beginning, though at first just because she is such a pathetic specter.
Then they are trapped together on a ship for several months. I think I’d like to be trapped with a group of interesting people on a ship for several months. It always seems like positive growth occurs and interesting sights are seen and sparks fly, of course. Isadora sheds some of her bindings–like the glasses that make it harder for her to see, one of her many petticoats, and all the hair that was giving her headaches–with the help of Ryan’s devil-may-care attitude. Ryan starts to see Isadora for the smart, independent woman that Boston shunned because she wasn’t fashionable.
They get to their destination: Rio De Janerio. Please, someone take me to Rio De Janerio. Perhaps because it is the horrible winter-spring season in Ohio where the temps fluctuate 30 degrees in a day and the sky is grey dawn-till-dusk, or perhaps because Rio De Janerio really is heaven on Earth, this setting is magical. There is a love scene that involves “hemp cigarettes” and a jungle water fall that has gone straight to my bucket list. This is where the pina colada dream comes in. Isadora undergoes a sensual transformation, and Ryan completely falls in love with her.
Alas, he is on a desperate mission to reunite Journey and his family. Ryan feels he cannot bring Isadora into what could ultimately become a hanging offense, so he keeps his love secret. However, since Isadora is her own woman now she joins the cause anyway–bringing Journey’s wife and children aboard.
The roll slavery plays in this novel is the best part of this book (yes, it even beats the succulent wonder of Rio De Janerio). The horrible institution is not glossed over or made glib. While it is not the main emphasis of the drama at all times, it’s not cheapened. It’s ugly and horrible and an evil to be battled. It was a breath of fresh air to read a romance that had this kind of depth.
The ending, however, is wayyy too quick.