Monday, February 23, 2009

"Broken Wing," by Judith James

Alternate Title: The Male Prostitute...He Goes To Work With Only His One Tool

The Chick:
Sarah, Lady Munroe. When her investigators tracked her missing little brother Jamie to an infamous brothel, she assumed the worst. When she finds out that Gabriel St. Croix, the whorehouse's prime attraction, kept the boy safe for five years, she's overcome with sincerest gratitude ... and maybe something more.
The Rub: While she adores Gabriel practically from the get-go, even she can't ignore the fact that he's seriously damaged goods. Also, just because her other family members are grateful towards Gabriel for protecting Jamie, it doesn't mean they're going to be all sunshine-and-butterflies about their beloved Sarah falling for a seasoned streetwhore.
Dream Casting: Kate Winslet.

The Dude: Gabriel St. Croix. Abandoned at the brothel at a young age, he endured a lifetime of sexual and physical abuse to get where he is today. He protected Jamie not only to keep him from experiencing what Gabriel had, but also to give himself an emotional connection in a world that's otherwise dead and bleak to him. When Jamie's family offers Gabriel a place to stay and a wealthy sum in return for his actions, he accepts, seeing a way to free himself from prostitution, if not from the emotional emptiness that tears him up inside.
The Rub: He, too, almost immediately falls for Sarah, but his upbringing has made it difficult, if not impossible, to separate lust from love. He simply can't get his head around how Sarah could possibly love him, broken and used as he is.
Dream Casting: Dominic Cooper.

The Plot:
Sarah: Jamie! You're safe and pedo-free! How can this be?

Jamie: *points to Gabriel*

Gabriel: Hi! I'm an empty shell who drinks to make myself feel dead and cuts to make myself feel alive!

Ross, Sarah's Brother: Hey, dude, thanks for saving my brother and all. Want ten thousand pounds?

Gabriel: I'm kinda paid by the hour.

Ross: ...

Sarah: Oh, Gabriel, I love you!

Gabriel: Gee thanks, I want to fuck you, too.

Sarah: That's not what I mean, silly.

Gabriel: Oh, well then, I love you too!

Sarah: Hooray--

Gabriel: But now I have to go on a perilous sea voyage to earn your respect!

Sarah: But you already have--

Gabriel: BYEBYENOW *absconds* *vanishes*

Sarah: SHIT.

Several Years Later

Sarah: You're alive?!

Gabriel: Uh, yeah, I kinda got broken again.

Sarah: Oh you big silly! Come here, you!

Gabriel: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Lady In Pants

1 Broken Man Ho

1 Rascally Pirate Cousin

1 Evil Uncle (deceased)

1 Very Bad Husband (deceased)

1 Evil Gay Slaver

1 Bitchy Fake Mistress

2 Hot Dudes Who Will Be Getting Sequels, yesssss? (Jacques Valmont and William Killigrew)

The Plot: Kristie J from Ramblings on Romance read this book, adored it, and quickly started a quest where she enthusiastically pimped this novel to friends and fellow bloggers. Er...maybe pimped is an inappropriate term, given the contents of this novel.

Our hero Gabriel St. Croix is a whore, and has been ever since he was abandoned outside a Parisian brothel when he was only a child. Exploited and victimized ever since, he works and behaves with an icy detachment enabled through copious drink and self-mutilation, his only ambition to earn enough money to get himself out of the brothel and take himself somewhere nice where he can forcibly end his suffering for good.

For the last five years however, he maintained one tenuous link to humanity and compassion: Jamie, a child also abandoned to the dubious parenting abilities of the whorehouse by shady characters. Gabriel dedicated himself to protecting the boy, sacrificing his own comfort, dignity and body to convince the brothel owners to leave Jamie alone. However, Gabriel doesn't consider himself a philanthropist or a hero - in his eyes, his defense of Jamie was as wretched, desperate, and self-serving as all of his other actions, performed only to keep himself connected to companionship he doesn't deserve.

When, miraculously, relatives of Jamie's come all the way over from England to rescue the boy, Gabriel writhes in selfish, irrational hatred directed at the wealthy johnny-come-latelies here to take Jamie away from him.

Jamie's sister Sarah, and half-brother Ross, Earl of Huntington, are overjoyed to have found their brother after five years of fruitless searching. Their formerly close-knit family was torn in all directions by a conniving uncle who desired the title for himself: he left Ross to languish as an unransomed prisoner of war, married Sarah off to a vicious old man, and arranged for Jamie's kidnapping and subsequent abandonment at the brothel.

Both Sarah and Ross are doubly grateful to Gabriel for protecting Jamie from the horrors of prostitution. While Ross is leery of forming too close an acquaintance with a seasoned whore and would rather just pay the thoughtful catamite and take off, Jamie (who, now ten years old, spent half of his life under Gabriel's care) is frightened to leave the only guardian he can remember. Sarah hits on the idea of hiring Gabriel for a year to be Jamie's companion and help ease the child back into normal life, with a lucrative reward to be bestowed upon him at the end of his service.

Gabriel accepts their proposition, but he's accustomed to believing the hand that feeds him hides another hand that wants to do other things in return. Sarah falls for him right from the start - initially out of simple gratitude for protecting her brother from a terrible fate, but gradually more for the tender personality she occasionally spots peeping out from beneath his horrid web of scar tissue. However, Gabriel is at first harsh and cutting with her - entirely unused to love, he interprets her avid interest as lust and tries to play the whore to scare her off.

Sarah, however, refuses to be driven away, and the first third of the novel unfolds in a delicate, wonderful, unhurried fashion as the two slowly warm to each other, albeit not without some awkwardness. Sarah's love for Gabriel fascinates and terrifies him both, and he ends up revealing more and more about his past - thinking something eventually will disgust her enough to make her give up trying, but it backfires as the stories he considers sickening or indicative of his own weak and degraded nature only convince Sarah of his strength and courage that allowed him to emerge sane from such horrific experiences.

Sarah, meanwhile, gives her love openly and without compunction, but holds back on her lust. She does lust after pretty, pretty Gabriel (and who wouldn't?), but she's wary of revealing this to him or trying to act on it - the last thing she wants is to appear to be anything like the people who used and abused Gabriel for their own pleasure. As their relationship progresses and Gabriel starts making tentative moves on her, her reluctance to engage physically creates more misunderstanding and conflict the two have to work out.

The first third of this novel really involved me - the writing was simple but elegant, the characters were unconventional but not anachronistically so, and the conflict intricate, internal, and realistic. Gabriel is a character who has grown used to rigidly compartmentalizing his life, to the point where he almost has two personalities - he has his Real personality, a man who is warm and vulnerable but realistic, and then he has his Whore personality, a guarded, icy creature who performs with mechanical but emotionless precision. While his actual personality eventually befriends Sarah, when it comes to love, he automatically resorts to his Whore personality.

Sarah could have annoyed me - she's another one of those historical heroines who wear pants just for the heck of it, but James provides a realistic motivation for her behaviour that doesn't leave her as a 21st-century woman in a 19th-century story. Sarah intentionally ostracized herself from Society when she fled her abusive husband's house to help look for Ross and Jamie with her cousin Davey, and since she's ruined already, she simply sees no point in wearing uncomfortable clothes when there's no one to please. Her release from societal rules has left her incredibly confident and tolerant, which makes her the ideal candidate to try and introduce love and compassion to Gabriel, without setting off his knee-jerk Whore instincts.

That being said, despite all the wonderfulness, this only lasts for the first third of the book. Many times while I was reading this, I got the impression that Broken Wing might have made a better novella than a novel. The novel has a beautiful, unique setting (which even takes place out of England at points, le gasp!), beautiful writing, a great hero - but a plot structure that, if not outright contrived, is at least unfocused.

A lot of the goodwill engendered by the first third of the novel is drained in the second, where the narrative sags under a near complete lack of conflict. In the first part of the novel, Gabriel and Sarah explore love, but in the second part, they've found it already and just want to make it perfectly clear to everyone who is reading that they are IN LOVE and are PERFECT FOR EACH OTHER and ARE HAVING A FABULOUS TIME PURSUING A NUMBER OF INTERESTS. The second part of this novel was like reading someone else's vacation diary - "look at how much fun we're having!" - which left me bored and not a little concerned that I still had half a novel to go before the end.

I suppose by the end of this second act, Judith James must have realized it too, as at the start of the third act she introduces a conflict in a disappointingly contrived fashion: Gabriel decides to go privateering with Sarah's cousin Davey in order to earn his own fortune because, apparently, along with the confidence and improved self-image Sarah's company has given him, he's also acquired the Alpha Male tendency to never be happy unless he's paying for everything. It doesn't matter that she's a countess with a fortune of her own, oh no.

This third act, in which Gabriel is washed overboard and held captive by slavers and mercenaries, is altogether the weakest of the novel. Its tone and setting (especially its violence), is a vast change from the gentle, subtle wonders of the first act. This wouldn't have been such a problem if Gabriel and Sarah ended up achieving, improving from, or learning anything from the flamboyant drama of this last section, but instead it plays almost like a prequel to the events of the novel's introduction. Gabriel, captured by an evil former "employer," essentially falls off the wagon and becomes addicted to emo again, reverting completely to his belief that he's too dirty and broken and twisted for Sarah to love so there's no point in going back to her.

And when Sarah and Gabriel inevitably reunite years later, what we get is a condensed, Cole's Notes version of the first act when Sarah has to convince Gabriel that he's worthy of love, again, and forgive him of all of his faults, again. Only this time around this has to happen within the short span of a few pages (make way for the HEA!), and all the subtlety and nuance of Gabriel's conversion in the novel's first act goes out the window. Gabriel comes around (again) to Sarah's confidence in him far too quickly for a man who's spent the last several years re-convincing himself of his innate Whore-ableness. And for Sarah's part, I felt Sarah forgave Gabriel too easily with only a disturbingly token amount of betrayal. For a woman who had to spend the last couple of years sitting on her ass twiddling her thumbs because Gabriel fell off the deep end, I expected her to kick Gabriel's ass a bit more before humping him with wild abandon.

That being said, this novel was still a pleasure to read. Judith James has a knack for language that kept the prose (if not the plotting) lush without being purple. While I love me some Regency England, I enjoyed exploring settings outside the British Isles, her incorporation of historical events into the narrative, and her cosmopolitan cast. I still think Broken Wing could have been better plotted, and might have worked better in a shorter format, but while this book doesn't make the A grade I'll definitely be on the look-out for her next books. B.


  1. For a woman who had to spend the last couple of years sitting on her ass twiddling her thumbs because Gabriel fell off the deep end, I expected her to kick Gabriel's ass a bit more before humping him with wild abandon.

    Yeah, that was pretty much the death knell for me. One of my hot buttons are heroes who go off to have massive pity parties, and the heroine happily puts herself on the shelf because dreamy sigh she's so in love and she'll happily wait for his return. If he returns? Hopefully? Maybe? Where he is anyway?

    I was more than a little disappointed that Sarah didn't have any balls. Not literally, off course....but you know what I mean.

    My final impression of this book was that it either needed to be 100 pages shorter or 200 pages longer. I think it would have worked better for me if James had either cut out the whole big separation stuff OR she had kept it in, added more to it, and turned this book into more of a 1970s romantic saga.

  2. *grin* A B is good!! Not of course as good as a 6 out of 5 - but B is most definitely better then say a D or F. I do agree with Wendy though - I would have love 200 more pages of this wonderful (6 out of 5) book - but alas, I don't think publishers allow that length anymore. So it was kind of a quick wrap up - even though - for me - it's still a 6 out of 5. :-)

  3. Wendy --> Yeah, a lot of Sarah's reactions to Gabriel were to wrap him in cotton wool. A lot of times she seemed a little too good to be true.

    That being said, I wouldn't have minded the ending, except the characters didn't seem to gain anything extra from the last hundred pages - they more or less ended up exactly where they started. It seemed like a repeat.

    Kristie J --> Hey, we book bloggers are ALL about enjoying the books. If you like books with tortured heroes and prostitution themes - I CHALLENGE you to read Mary Balogh's "The Secret Pearl." It was my first Balogh book and it kind of was my "6 outta 5" moment. Even nearly a year later, I've read some great books but none that came to the same level as "The Secret Pearl."

    The only reason I haven't tried to quest it is ... because it came out in 1991. If you can get your hands on it (it was recently reissued), I recommend it.

  4. I Have read The Secret Pearl *g* I read it years ago when it first came out and I'm pretty sure it's in my 'library' with quite a few other Balogh books. I quite liked it - though I did get frustrated with Fleur. Sure she was scared of Adam after what happened between them. But I always thought that considering she put herself out there - even though it was because she was in such desperate straights, she was fearful a little bit too long and a little too harsh. And I felt so bad for poor Adam - being so noble for such a witch of a wife.