The historical romances of Mary Jo Putney are usually peopled with eminently civilized and sensible characters, who know that passion is destructive if it is not governed by reason, friendship, and respect. They often find themselves in exotic locales and impossible situations, but love - and a stiff upper lip - always prevails. The Bartered Bride is a perfect example.
Gavin Elliott is a prosperous merchant. While trading with the Sultan Kasan, tyrant of an Indonesian island, he spots a beautiful European woman being sold as a slave. Appalled, he tells Kasan that he wishes to buy and free her. Kasan, who desires to control Gavin, acquires the woman himself. The two men make a wager: if Gavin succeeds in completing a series of Herculean tasks, he will win the woman to do with as he wishes. If Gavin fails, he must work for Kasan for a period of ten years.
The woman who is the prize of this contest is Alexandra Warren (those who follow Putney's works will recognize her as Amy, the intrepid daughter of the heroine of Shattered Rainbows). On her way home to England after being widowed in Australia, Alex and her daughter Katie were taken by pirates. Alex has been raped and brutalized by her captors, and she is desperate to find her daughter. She recognizes that Gavin is a good man and trusts him with her friendship.
The last task in Gavin's contest with Kasan puts Gavin and Alex together in a painful situation that jeopardizes the fragile trust that is building between them. This is only the beginning of their adventures together.
The first half of this book, which takes place in Indonesia, is a real page-turner. Putney excels in her description of the frightening Kasan and of the imaginary Indonesian island he rules. When Gavin and Alex return to England, the romance heats up while the adventure slows down.
Gavin is an engaging hero. A strong man, he is secure enough in his strength to forego the swaggering that so many romance novel heroes seem to enjoy. Born in Scotland and raised in America, he has staunch republican convictions and a deep contempt for Europe's aristocracy. Upon returning to England, it will come as a shock to him that, not only is Alex closely connected with the nobility, but he is, as well. Gavin's obvious love for Alex is touching, and his patience and understanding with her make him thoroughly sympathetic.
I had a more difficult time imagining Alex, who I found to be serene beyond belief. Admittedly not all women respond to rape and abuse the same way, but Alex's reactions were sometimes difficult for me to imagine. For instance, immediately after being rescued from slavery, we learn that "Despite nightmares, the next days were the happiest time Alex had known since she'd married and left her parents' home." I thought, "She is so in denial." Throughout the book, Alex will have some difficulties in the marriage bed, some emotional ups and downs, but overall she is so reasonable and sensible that I found myself having a hard time believing in her at all.
I don't expect that all readers will agree with me about Alex. She is definitely admirable, and I liked her - I just found her so heroic that I couldn't identify with her. Sometimes I found myself wishing that Gavin and Alex were both more passionate and flawed, less controlled and logical. They are both experienced people, but they're also young - their sage comprehension of their own emotions made them seem, perhaps, much older than they are.
I also didn't care for the way suspense plot in the second half of the book panned out. I found it somewhat predictable (and whatever surprise it might have contained is given away by the book's unnecessary prologue). The villains are a TSTL lot who eagerly give Alex all the information she needs to foil them, which she does.
I've read all of Putney's books. I've passionately loved some and was bitterly disappointed by others. This book reaches neither extreme; it is as comfortable and soothing as a bathrobe just out of the dryer, but it didn't make my heart pound.
Of course, in my opinion a medium Putney is better than even good efforts by many authors. With its great hero, exotic locales, and sympathetic (if somewhat flawless) heroine, The Bartered Bride is more than worth reading.