Picks and Pans Review: The True Love

updated 09/21/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/21/1992 01:00AM

by Patrick O'Brian

O'Brian is 78, lives in the South of France and writes novels about the exploits of two friends—Capt. Jack Aubrey and surgeon Stephen Maturin, both of the British Royal Navy—during the Napoleonic Wars. Given those facts, anyone who hasn't read his books may find it surprising that Rolling Stone named O'Brian its "hot historical novelist" for 1992. Anyone who has read O'Brian's novels will only be surprised that critical recognition in the U.S. took so long.

The plot of The Truelove, like most of the 15 books in the Aubrey-Maturin series, is deceptively simple: Aubrey is ordered to sail his 28-gun frigate, Surprise, to a strategic South Pacific isle, oust the French and persuade the locals to swear allegiance to King George III. But Truelove's magic is in the journey, even more than the destination; by book's end the reader will have encountered jealousy, espionage, opium addiction, a Mozart duet under the stars and a befuddled Jack Aubrey's first brush with aging.

Aubrey recovers his joy, but it is a mark of O'Brian's talent and style that his hero is intriguing because he is so disarmingly human. Aubrey is no Errol Flynn, and nowhere in the series is there a mysterious, coal-eyed Gypsy woman whose heart burns with the wanton fire of unbridled passion.

The books, popular in Britain for two decades, received an important boost in the U.S. last year when an enthusiastic New York Times review labeled them "the best historical novels ever written." They can be read out of order, but the first, Master and Commander, is still one of the best. For a pure adrenaline fix, try The Letter of Marque. Although O'Brian occasionally indulges in a bravura scene that delightfully strains credulity (Aubrey escaping across France dressed in a bearskin, for example) the novels' success lies in great stories, rich characters and the author's clear love for the language and details—from debt law to the difference between a cannon and a carronade—of a bygone era. (Norton, $19.95)

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