Chua Huiann's parents arranged for her to marry Xie Fuhua, a Chinese businessman living in America. She is very nervous about her new circumstances and spends the entire sea voyage to San Francisco wondering not only what it might be like to be the man's wife, but also missing her beloved homeland. The curious Huiann wanders around the ship, and is shocked to find several more young women, not unlike herself, being held in cages below deck. Soon after arriving at her new home, Huiann discovers that her true purpose in coming to America was not to become a wealthy man's wife, but to be trained to work as a high-priced courtesan. She has no intention of giving up her virginity to the highest bidder, and diligently watches for an opportunity to escape. When an opening presents itself, Huiann takes off running through the busy streets of San Francisco, taking refuge in a general store.
Alan Sommers had seen Huiann a few days earlier as she disembarked from the ship, so he recognizes her when she enters his store. Alan had spent several years as a prisoner of the South during the Civil War, so when it becomes apparent that the young woman is frightened and hiding from someone, he can sympathize. He allows her to live in his spare room and hires her as his housekeeper, and soon she proves to be an extremely talented seamstress as well, sewing dresses to be sold in his shop. The pair begin to teach each other about their respective languages and culture, and before long, what started as a mere attraction blossoms into love. Alan would like nothing more than to make Huiann his wife, but knows that to enter into a mixed race marriage would likely mean him loosing everything he has worked so hard to achieve. Even if Alan can find a way to marry Huiann, Xie Fuhua is a powerful crime boss who will stop at nothing to see his "property" returned.
It seems that whenever I run across a Bonnie Dee book, the synopsis and excerpt never fail to draw me in, so I was very excited to finally have a chance to try one of her novels. Captive Bride didn't quite reach the heights of perfection for me, but it was a solid piece of storytelling that I really enjoyed reading. I always like a good interracial story, and this one was quite interesting especially in the historical context where prejudice and racism seemed to run rampant. Alan struggles with truly wanting to make Huiann more than his mistress or lover, but knowing that he would receive public censure if he married her. The author also sheds some light on the sexual slave trade that was prevalent at that time in which young Asian women were either kidnapped or taken from their families under false pretenses, shipped to America under horrific conditions, and then pressed into prostitution where they were treated little better than animals. Considering that this type of sex trafficking still occurs in certain parts of the world today, I really have to give the author kudos for addressing this important women's rights issue.
Huiann is a kind-hearted innocent who truly has no idea that she is not bound for America to become a stranger's wife, but instead will be working as a high-priced courtesan. She was nervous enough about becoming a bride, but when she found out the truth, she was absolutely horrified. She may have been sweet and demure in some ways, but even in the opening chapter, I could detect a natural curiosity and spunkiness that definitely served her well as the story progressed. When she discovered her fate, Huiann never gave up on the possibility of escape and was ever vigilant looking for that opportunity. When it finally presented itself, she grabbed hold with both hands and didn't let go, leading her to find an ally in Alan. I admired Huiann for being a hard-worker who showed her gratitude to Alan by doing everything she could to make life easier for him. When they became more intimately involved, she was also very giving and loving toward him, offering herself freely. In the end, when Huiann once again found herself kidnapped, she was at first depressed, but it didn't take long for the wheels to begin turning in her head to formulate another potential escape plan. She was a strong woman who didn't just wait around for someone to come save her, but took her fate into her own hands while still being a gentle soul at her core.
Although Alan was certainly willing to do what needed to be done to save Huiann, he was, in my opinion, more of a beta hero. He is attracted to Huiann from the moment he sees her disembarking from a steamer. Alan was somewhat tortured from his time spent as a prisoner of war at Andersonville during the Civil War. He still has nightmares from that, and interestingly, the authors chooses not to make them magically go away because of Huiann's gentle love. When Huiann coincidentally shows up in his store, obviously running and hiding from someone, Alan can relate even though they initially can't communicate. Alan is a successful business man and one of the good guys who wants to run for political office out of a sense of rightness and fairness and truly wanting to help constituents by cleaning up the corruption in the city of San Francisco. I liked that Alan treated Huiann with kindness, and like an equal, in spite of her being a woman, and Asian at that, in a time when most whites saw people of other races as good for nothing more than the labor they could provide. He always gave her a choice in everything she did, not wanting her to feel like she'd left one "master" for another. I also got the impression that Alan was a little more average looking which is a rarity for a romance hero. At no point, did Huiann think of Alan as gorgeous. In fact, at first, she doesn't even find him attractive, but as she begins to see the beauty inside, it changes her opinion of the outside. Overall, Alan was a great guy who could be strong while also being extremely sweet.
During the early parts of the story, I had a hard time feeling the emotional connection between Huiann and Alan. They were very obviously attracted to one another, but there wasn't quite enough happening between them to make the reasons readily apparent. He had found her beautiful from the moment he first saw her and she was very grateful for his kindness in saving her from a terrible fate, but there was still a little something missing for me. I think part of it had to do with the language barrier. They each speak candidly in their own tongue and glean a certain amount of meaning from facial expressions and gestures, but since they still couldn't really understand one another, these "conversations" didn't seem quite as meaningful as they would have otherwise. I also detected some passivity in the narrative prose which always makes it a little harder to feel things too, because it tells more than shows. Once Huiann starts to learn some English and the story got to the love scenes that all changed though. The first time Alan and Huiann share a bed was very sweet. They may not have gone "all the way," but they were very loving and giving to each other. The later love scenes remained gentle and truly romantic while still being spicy, very much the physical expression of their burgeoning love. I loved that Alan was always so tender with Huiann, and that he cared about her enough to use protection which is pretty rare in a historical romance.
Overall, Captive Bride was a very enjoyable read with a hero and heroine I could really root for. It's setting and certain story elements were somewhat unusual for historical romance which made it all the more intriguing. This was my first read by Bonnie Dee, and I'm happy to say that she didn't let me down in my expectations of her storytelling abilities. I'm now looking forward to trying some of her other works soon.
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