Sydney Darrow's father, a renowned anthropologist, has been studying a "wild man" who was found in the Canadian wilderness apparently without speech. The man is essentially kept under lock and key in the guest house of the family's estate and only allowed out for a short walk with his handler each day. One day, Sydney and her little brother, Sam, chance to meet the man when he is on one of his outings. Sydney immediately sees something in his eyes, and his manner with Sam and the family dog, that no one else seems to recognize. In her heart, she knows that he isn't the "wild man" that they think he is. She reluctantly agrees to help her father with his experiments and in doing so, becomes more and more attracted to this gentle man. When he finally trusts Sydney enough to speak to her and tell her his name, she knows that they cannot continue to treat him like a lab animal. Instead, she suggests that he move into the main house where the family can teach him all the things he needs to know to live in polite society, but it quickly becomes apparent to Sydney that he is far more civilized than most human beings could ever hope to be.
Wild at Heart is a beautiful and unique book, perhaps not to literature in general, since it's overarching plot of a "lost man" being found in the wilderness apparently unable to speak is reminiscent of stories such as Tarzan or The Jungle Book. However, for the romance genre, it is definitely an unusual tale. Patricia Gaffney certainly appears to have done her homework, giving the reader authentic historical and scientific tidbits throughout the novel. The heroine's father is an anthropologist, and the experiments he tries with Michael as well as some of the terminology in general seemed scientifically sound. She also depicted in detail the often inhumane conditions in which zoo animals were kept in the late 1800s. Most enjoyable of all to me though, were Ms. Gaffney's descriptions of the exhibits and attractions at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. I had never read any stories that incorporated a World's Fair, so this was quite fascinating, driving me to do a bit of research on my own. Last but not least, I felt that the author managed to keep her characters within the stricter social mores of the era, which is something that many historical romance authors tend to overlook.
Wild at Heart primarily focuses on Michael, "the lost man," and his journey from being found, to being used as a science experiment, to re-learning all the things he had "forgotten" while surviving in the wilderness and then learning anew how to navigate through the social structure of a large city, while also becoming a valued member of the family of the anthropologist who was studying him. It was a joy watching him grow and change from a boy in a man's body to a more mature individual. Michael was incredibly intelligent, soaking up information like a sponge as Sydney and her brothers taught him about everything from reading and writing to playing games. He had an innate curiosity and an insatiable desire to learn, devouring all the books Sydney would bring him and still wanting more. It was so cute how when they took him to the World's Fair he was virtually inexhaustible and could barely be pried away. Michael is almost too sweet for words, especially in the beginning. He also can be funny, and quite thoughtful, often taking the time to ponder things very deeply. Having grown up around wild animals and counted them as his only friends, he has an intense love of all living creatures. I think the thing I loved most about Michael is his honesty. Since he hasn't been around other human beings enough to become cynical, he is totally guileless, which makes everything he says, especially to Sydney thoroughly beautiful and sincere. He just doesn't know how not to be honest. Michael also has an instinctive sense of morality, which makes him understand the difference between "having sex" and "making love," even though Sydney's brother, Phillip, nearly leads him wrong, and he just knows in his heart, right from the beginning, that the only woman he wants is Sydney. Michael is quite possibly the most gentle, sensitive, loving and passionate romance hero I've ever read, and I absolutely loved him.
Sydney is a widow who is still grieving for her husband eighteen months after his death. They were only married a year, and had a loving relationship, although Sydney always felt that their marriage lacked true passion. She has also spent most of her life trying to please her family, and was particularly looking for the approval of her father who always seems to be too caught up in his science experiments to take notice of his children. As such, she has a "don't rock the boat" mentality, while Phillip is the more rebellious one, trying to get her to break free. Sydney slowly begins to come to Michael's defense, and eventually becomes his most ardent supporter. I did find myself wishing during the early parts of the book that she would stand up for herself a little more, particularly with her father, aunt and almost-fiancée. She tended to take a more passive-aggressive approach, but when she finally decided to take her brother's advice, she did it in a big way. Her actions made a lot of people angry at first, but I think that in the end, it was what also made them finally give her the respect she deserved. What I liked most about Sydney was her patience and tenderness with Michael, never truly fearing him, giving him the gift of her trust, teaching him, and loving him when he couldn't remember ever having felt the love of another human being in his life.
Wild at Heart had a very colorful cast of secondary characters who really enhanced the story rather than bogging it down. Sydney's little brother, Sam, is such a cute kid, and I was thrilled to finally read a child character who actually acts like a child instead of a miniature adult. He is fascinated with Michael from their first meeting, and views him as a second big brother. He's always excited to spend time with Michael and teach him things, in an exuberant way that only a kid could possess. Having been pushed into studying science when he really wanted to be a writer, Phillip is rather cynical and rebellious. It's obvious that he adores his siblings though, and it was great to see him grow throughout the story and have a hint of an HEA of his own by the end. Dr. Harley Winter is a brilliant scientist, but not a particularly interactive father. He tends to get completely lost in his work and intellectual pondering, rarely making an actual decision unless forced to do so. When Harley's wife died, his spinster sister, Estelle, became the matron of the house. She is a stern lady who is essentially feared, or at the very least, not well-liked by anyone. I was really thrilled to see Sydney make peace with both her father and Aunt Estelle before the end of the book, because I thought it showed how vitally important family is even when they don't always agree or get along.
The main thing that kept Wild at Heart from being a perfect read for me is that the pace was rather slow, especially in the beginning, and sometimes the voice was a little too passive to be able to fully engage my emotions. Things did pick up later in the story though, and there were a few times I had a very difficult time putting it down. I also admit that the languid pace was in some ways necessary. For example, the fast and frequent sexual encounters that are found in some romances would not have been appropriate here with Michael being so childlike at the start. Instead, the author keeps his and Sydney's romantic interactions very proper with sexual tension being created through small shared intimacies that slowly build on one another, with things going just a little further each time they come together. One of my favorites scenes in the entire book is when Sydney tells Michael they aren't kissing enough and asks for "just kisses." A more measured scene like this can be quite sensual, because it's all about holding back and letting the passion build. There are only a handful of love scenes in the book all of which are only moderately descriptive, but when they happened, I thought they were utterly beautiful. Once again, I was floored by how powerful it can be to use a virginal hero, because if written well, their enthusiasm for the act alone can be quite intoxicating.
In spite of some occasional predictability, Wild at Heart was an incredibly memorable book with lots to set it apart from other romances. Heroes as sweet and perfect as Michael are hard to come by and after a less than stellar male lead in my last book, he was just what the doctor ordered. I borrowed Wild at Heart from the library, but have every intention of seeking out a copy for my keeper shelf as I can't even fathom not wanting to re-read it at some point. This was my first book by Patricia Gaffney, but after a lovely read like this, I'll definitely be checking out her backlist.
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