In this case, I had an extremely strong reaction to the beginning of the story, and it took a good long while before I could get past a particular scene–a scene with no gore, no graphic content, and no violence.
Our minds are strange places, n’est ce pas?
Eventually, I got past that bit, and then…well, I had other issues. Be warned, this is a very rambling and meandering review–more so than usual, that is.
Captive Bride, by Bonnie Dee
This is one of those extremely rare beasts in genre romance: it’s set in the aftermath of the War Between the States, but not in the South or the West (as we think of it–the Rockies or the Plains, or Texas). It’s set in San Francisco, in the late 1870.
Here’s the blurb from the author’s site:
San Francisco, 1870
Huiann arrives in America expecting to be wed to a wealthy businessman. She no sooner disembarks from the ship than she realizes Xie is not looking for a bride: Huiann is worth more to him as a high-end prostitute. Though her fate is better than that of other Chinese women forced into the sex trade, she has no intention of waiting for Xie to sell her virginity to the highest bidder. At the first opportunity, she escapes and disappears into the city.
When a beautiful woman takes refuge in his store, Alan’s life changes forever. He’s spent the last five years trying to forget the horrors of war, and had almost given up hope of finding love. He hires Huiann as his housekeeper, and though they can only communicate through signs and sketches, they quickly form a bond that transcends the need for words.
But Xie is determined to recover his property, and love may not be enough to protect Huiann from his vengeance.
The scene that stopped me cold occurs very early in the story–chapter two, I believe–and it’s the moment when Huiann is faced with the reality of her situation. Not only is she not going to marry a respectable, wealthy, important man as promised, but she’s to disrobe in the presence of this man, his sleazy factotum, and the hardened madame who manages the girls in the brothel where Huiann is expected to work.
Why does that hit me so hard?
I would like to say that it’s because we are told, over and over and over, that this still happens.¹
However, there are many other horrible things that happen in real life, and yet I can read about them in fiction; and hello! this scene is practically telegraphed in the blurb! And I cannot say either that it was because I cared deeply about Huiann’s fate at this point; as much as I usually enjoy Ms Dee’s writing voice, this was one of the cases where the characterization didn’t quite work for me.
Ultimately, I really don’t know why it was so difficult for me to read that scene, only that it was.
Then there was my issue with the characterization.
Please note that, while I am not white, and have no Anglo-Saxon blood whatsoever, neither do I have any Chinese heritage, and very limited (close to nil) cultural knowledge; take my observations with a ton of salt. Still, for what they are worth:
I was bothered by Huiann’s characterization. Her thought processes felt, to me, calculatedly other. For example, she thinks of herself as a phoenix to Alan’s dragon. For almost every occasion, there’s a proverb–and the spirit of Grandmother Mei makes what feels like an undue number of appearances.
Mind you, where I come from, there’s a dicho (saying, proverb) or three, for every occasion, but even during the decade plus I lived next door to my abuelita (the queen of dichos), I really didn’t think in them, if that makes sense. Having Huainn’s constantly do that felt…well, forced, otherizing. A sort of shortcut to characterization: “look, this is a Chinese woman, she doesn’t think like people from the US/white people/Westerners/us do!”
Allow me to insert the usual disclaimer: I am not saying that this is what Ms Dee thought while she wrote, or what she intended. I cannot know what was in her mind, or what her intentions were while writing. All I can say is that that is how I felt while reading.
I might have still enjoyed the story–have I mentioned that I usually enjoy Ms Dee’s writing voice very much?–if the plot had not been as predictable as it turned out to be, and if I had been more attached to the characters and the romance between them.
There was a final issue for me with the story, harking back to the sexual slavery/exploitation of women (see below the footnotes), which once again yanked me out of the book.
And because all of the above, I am very sorry to say that, in the end, Captive Bride was very much a letdown for me. 5.00 out of 10.
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¹ I chose this specific article not because I think it’s worse in my country of origin than anywhere else–see Pakistan, Thailand, and any and all places where poverty and lack of education make for fertile ground for abuse of the weakest, the poorest, the most vulnerable–always, always, women and children.
I am one of those people who thinks that prostitution should be a legal profession, where the people who choose² to practice it are protected by law. Licensing, certification, health checks, taxes: whatever is necessary to bring prostitution under the protection of the law, instead of criminalization, condemnation and stigma, would go a long way in reducing the prevalence of sexual slavery all over the world.
² Yes, there are people who choose sex work, and why the hell not? If athletes are adored for selling their bodies in the form of sport, why should prostitutes who choose to do this freely be persecuted by the law? If the alternative to selling your body for sex and making a decent wage, is to live in abject poverty while sewing clothes, or working three part time jobs in the service industry, why is this not a legitimate choice? If you want to learn more about the reality of sex work, from someone who knows about this first hand, go read Maggie McNeill’s blog.³
³ If reading the blog of an unrepentant sex worker offends you, then how about the words of a First Amendment lawyer? Here, have some Ken White at his best.
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Alan helps Huiann rescue a number of sex slaves from Xie Fuhua’s brothel. In order to help these women get back on their feet, and earn money, either to get back to their families, or to make a life in San Francisco, they are asked to work as seamstresses for Huiann’s business. And because this is indeed the fate of many of the women and children who are ‘rescued’ from sex work by many well-meaning people and organizations, I was back to thinking, where is their agency? If given the choice, wouldn’t at least some of these women prefer to have the freedom to choose, by themselves and for themselves? Instead, they are first forced into prostitution, then they are forced intro drudgery, and barely eking out a living, by a society that offers them no choice.
Yes, I have issues, why do you ask?