Hopping into the way back machine

While on vacation, I finally read the second of the Old Skool Harlequin romance novels I found at the local used bookstore.  It…was interesting in a train-wreck sort of way.

Man of the Islands by Henrietta Reid

(c) 1967

The back cover copy:  Greg Hallam’s name was a legend among the islands, and when his schooner put into Yara, Verity fell in love with the man as well as the legend.  But what chance had Verity when Stella also was on Yara?

Man of the Islands opens with Verity angsting about what to do with herself:  her father, who abandoned a career as a doctor in England to become an artist (unsuccessfully), has died, leaving her alone and without support.  Her paternal aunt has declined to take her in, and she’s more or less obliged to take a job working for Stella Fenton on Magena Plantation.  At the same time, the Allamanda pulls in to port, having suffered serious damage in the last big storm.  Stella and Greg, captain of the Allamanda, have a history of some sort, and she manages to talk him into coming to Magena, in theory to teach her younger brother how to properly manage the plantation.  Of course, really she’s just maneuvering to have him around, hoping to eventually seduce him into something, presumably marriage since he appears to have been The One Who Got Away.   

Poor Verity, stuck on Magena doing a job that it never really described except as office work, is sure that Greg is an arrogant user, and wants nothing to do with him.  But the reader is told of her gradual obsession and attraction to him.  Told, not shown, because they are seldom on the page together.  He rescues her a couple of times, then announces abruptly that he loves her, then goes back to ignoring and doubting her.  Eventually, the volcano on the island erupts, forcing them into proximity again, and there is a big confrontation between Stella and another character which Verity overhears, then another scene that Greg overhears, and finally Verity deigns to trust him and say The Words.  Eh.  In the end, the denouement seemed rather lame.  It also didn’t make much sense, since Greg has suddenly become a plantation owner — did he buy Magena?  with what money?  even though the island had just erupted and was probably not workable?

Okay, first of all, where’s Yara?  What is Yara?  In the beginning, I thought it was Australia, because of the Yarra River.  But no. Ultimately I figured out that Yara is part of Papua New Guinea, based on mentions of going to Rabaul, which appears to be the nearest large port.

Next question:  what does Magena Plantation produce?  I don’t know.  Maybe I wasn’t reading carefully enough, but it was never really clear to me.  The plantation is a successful one, and the source of Stella’s wealth, though.

Stella.  She’s a woman who likes men and money.  Which of course makes her the Evil Other Woman in this book.  Which her constant machinations and manipulations got a little tiresome — there seemed to be an awful lot of them for such a short book — the caricature-ish nature of her character was a bit of a disappointment.

Greg?  The reader never gets his perspective, everything is filtered entirely through Verity, who doesn’t seem like the most reliable of narrators, frankly.   Ultimately we learn that he pulled in to Yara for repairs because he’d heard rumors about Verity and her father, and was more or less in love with her based on those, long before he ever met her.  Yeah, no, not believable.

And Verity.  What a dish rag.  Except apparently she was a magnet for men, since both Greg and Stella’s brother and yet a third male character in the book were attracted to her.  Mostly I wondered about her lack of independence — maybe this is just a modern sensibility, but her lack of initiative in going to look for a job to support herself, her utter reliance on her father and then hoping for rescue by her aunt made me wonder about her.  She was supposed to be an adult, but that reliance on others seemed naive and childish to me.

In a lot of ways, this book seemed rather Victorian to me, with the worrying about chaperones and complaints about the "heathen" indigenous tribes of the island.  Gentility, Verity’s excess of it and Stella’s lack, was hammered on.  As I read, I kept thinking of the English in India, and their imposition of Britishisms on the population, mostly because that seems like what has happened at Magena.  As a romance novel, this book flat out did not work for me for the reasons I’ve mentioned:  told not shown, and what was told wasn’t believable.  The only vaguely interesting thing about the book was its minimal value as a narrative about 20th century colonialism. 

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