Star-Crossed by Linda Collison (with mucho spoilers)
According to her biography, Linda Collison is an avid sailor whose experience includes several weeks sailing on a replica of an 18th century ship. The experience shows. Though I don’t know anything about sailing, I can say that Collison does a remarkable job of bringing her setting to life.
Patricia Kelly is our heroine and narrator. Born illegitimately to a baron’s son and an Irish maid, her father has led her to believe that she will one day own the Barbados estate on which she was born. With no money and no connections after her father’s death, she leaves her British boarding school and stows away on a ship in the hopes of claiming the estate she believes is rightfully hers. The first person to find her is Brian Dalton, the bosun’s mate. He gives her food and a change of clothes, and a few precious moments of freedom every night. At least until she is discovered by the cabin boy. The commander of the ship, Lieutenant Molesworth, is determined to get rid of Patricia in Madeira, but his physician soon comes to her rescue. In exchange for working as Dr. MacPherson’s assistant, Lieutenant Molesworth will let her travel with them to Barbados.
The voyage to Barbados is long and dangerous, as the British and French are jockeying for power, so Patricia has a lot of time to acquire medical skills, and to fall in love with Dalton. Upon arriving in Barbados, Patricia learns that her father’s death was actually a suicide and the estate already sold to pay off some of his debts. What is an unmarried woman in the 18th century to do when she has no money and no estate? As Patricia puts it,
Had my father lived, he would have chosen my husband and I would have complied, though I wasn’t much interested in marriage, children, any of that. Marriage was but a distasteful requirement to my inheritance, the plantation. Now it seemed but a distasteful requirement for my survival.
Despite their feelings for each other, Patricia and Dalton can’t marry. Dr. MacPherson, however, offers Patricia his hand in marriage. As much as she may admire him, Dr. MacPherson is twice her age and she loves another, but Patricia accepts in order to survive.
At this point, I should point out that I never truly believed that Patricia and Brian Dalton were in love. We’re told that they’re in love, but you don’t actually see it happening. While Patricia is freest and truest with him, they spend so little time together on the page that the development of their relationship is superficial. One day he’s giving her a spare set of clothes, then she’s climbing the rigging to talk to him, and suddenly they’re in love. I think Dr. MacPherson had more page time than Dalton in the first part of the book.
But Patricia marrying Dr. MacPherson? I give Collison credit for that. She doesn’t sugarcoat the situation. It’s a marriage of convenience, and that’s that. It might not be the most romantic thing, but it is the most historically accurate.
Getting back to the story, Patricia continues to assist Dr. MacPherson after their marriage. As Lieutenant Molesworth has philosophical differences with Dr. MacPherson regarding his medical care, the doctor is forced to find another position. Though he hires on with a hospital ship in poor repair, an outbreak of yellow fever on shore keeps both Patricia and Dr. MacPherson busy. When Dr. MacPherson succumbs to yellow fever himself and Patricia loses the money he left her when the ship is destroyed, she is forced to reinvent herself once again in order to survive.
For me, the greatest strength of the book was the setting. Almost the entire story takes place on ships and in the Caribbean, and I can’t think of many YA books that have both a female lead and a similar setting. Collison gives readers a detailed picture of life aboard ships without being overwhelming. There is a lot of information about ships, but it’s nicely integrated into the story. I never felt like there was an infodump, yet I only had to turn to the glossary a few times as I read the book. I seem to like historical fiction about females facing society’s strictures and having to overcome them, and this book definitely fits the bill.
Map, glossary and short list of references included.
Also reviewed at Big A little a.