2013 Book #5 – Post Captain, by Patrick O’Brian

Well, the bromance honeymoon is over.  The niceties wore off, the insults started flying, and one even challenged the other to a duel.  And what could possibly come between BFFs Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin?  You guessed it.  Women.

The whole point of why I started to read religiously this year – other than the fact that Stephen King told me to – is because I believe that every book I read can teach me something about the art and craft of writing.  Of course, I went into Post Captain a little bit concerned that the second book in a series of twenty wouldn’t have much to teach and that the best it could offer would be the continuation of the story of the characters I love.

Okay, I was wrong.  There was a lot to learn in this book.

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Post Captain picks up immediately after Master and Commander ends.  Jack is without a ship and due to personal politics, he hasn’t been made post captain.  If you’re not post captain you might as well pack up and go home.  The overwhelming goal of this book is for Jack to be made post captain and get a ship.

Of course, for the first quarter of the book he and Stephen are stuck on land.  Jack doesn’t do very well on land, as evidenced by him falling off his horse repeatedly while attempting to go fox hunting.  But he has some money and rents out a nice house, and of course he’s got Stephen.  And then they meet Miss Sophia Williams and Mrs. Diana Villiers, who is widowed.  The hunt is on!

I’ve heard Patrick O’Brian described as “Jane Austen for men”.  Yep.  He writes intricate social relationships with the same finesse and attention to detail, but he does it with a masculine pragmatism.  Jane Austen concerns herself with the machinations of the human heart.  Patrick O’Brian sees those same machinations from the point of view of another, lower organ unique to male-kind.  Jane’s ladies might know which respectable society ladies would make good wives, but Patrick’s men are far more interested in which ladies might be game for something more.

Throughout this entire book one question stayed at the forefront of my mind, driving me on to untangle the answer:  Are Jack and Stephen sleeping with the same woman?  Honestly, I’m not so sure.  At one point I swore they were.  Later in the book I was certain it was just Stephen and Jack was all talk.  Later still I was of the opinion that neither of them were actually sleeping with her.  Then finally I came to the conclusion that yes, in fact, they were both nailing her … and they weren’t the only ones.

It was a beautiful moment when Jack finally, slowly, ponderously, came to realize that he didn’t actually love the easy (*cough*slutty*cough*) target of Diana, but rather, he loved the honest, straightforward, faithful Sophia and wanted to marry her.  Too bad for him that by the time he came around he was £11,000+ in debt and in danger of being carted off to debtor’s prison every moment he set foot on land!  (And I happen to agree with Stephen’s sentiment that though he may swear undying love and fidelity, Jack isn’t cut out for celibacy.)

The key thing that I learned from Post Captain was the importance of The Burning Question.  The plot of the book surrounded whether or not Jack would ever get a ship again (he did, and it was a piece of crap) or whether he would be made post captain.  It also followed the course of Stephen’s missions as a spy and whether he would ever tell Jack the truth.  But what really kept me turning pages was the immense personal tension between the two main characters, embodied in the questions “Are Jack and Stephen sleeping with the same woman?” and “Dammit, are they ever just going to talk about it and clear the air?”

Incidentally, Jack did try to bring it out in the open about two-thirds of the way through the book and the conversation resulted in Stephen blowing up and challenging him to a duel.  Fortunately, the duel was never fought.

It’s funny how this bromance has so much to say about how to write Romance.  Plot aside, the tension in this book was fantastic.  Like any romantic couple, even though I knew the relationship must go on (there are 18 more books in the series, after all), I was constantly on the edge of my seat wondering if the friendship would be able to survive hurt feelings and personal betrayal.  It was the ultimate “will they or won’t they?”

Novels need tension.  They need that burning question that the reader reads on well past their bedtime to find the answer to.  Jack and Stephen were like flipping magnets throughout this entire book.  One minute they would be drawn together irresistibly to the point where I couldn’t imagine one being able to function without the other, and the next they would have opposite polarity, stuck together but opposing each other at all times.  It was really cool, actually.

In the end these two men need each other in order to survive.  Without Stephen, Jack would probably end up in debtor’s prison, disgraced and transported to Australia.  Without Jack, Stephen would probably overdose on laudanum in a fit of melancholy.  Bromance at its finest.

And now, on to something different.  I think it’s time for something light and contemporary.

 

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