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So Wild A Kiss
by Nancy Richards-Akers
(Avon, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-380-78947-7
***
I had high hopes for So Wild A Kiss, Nancy Richards-Akers' new romance novel set in 17th century Ireland.

So much so, that I bought the book myself off the rack at Safeway, instead of getting a free reviewer's copy. I want to support publishers who are willing to put out books with settings other than Regency England (though I love it, it has unfortunately become, if such a thing exists, a generic historical setting) or 1870s Montana (ditto). Nancy Richards-Akers is an author with a great deal of feeling and knowledge about Ireland. But unfortunately, the fact that So Wild A Kiss was set in Ireland was the best thing I liked about the book. I wish I had my $5.99 back.

So Wild A Kiss takes place in Wicklow, when Oliver Cromwell's army is busily spreading terror across the countryside. The Irish gentry, both native and Norman, are losing their estates left and right, taken over by English profiteers. In the midst of this turmoil, young Eleanor Archebold desperately tries to hold on to her ancestral estate, and to keep her family from ruin.

Eleanor's father, a Norman descendent, has been executed for his political views; her mother, daughter of an Irish chieftain, has recently died. This leaves Eleanor as mistress of Laragh and its people, as well as responsible for her younger brother and sisters. But as all the estates around her have been seized, their rightful owners turned out, she knows she hasn't much time to act. A new English landlord could show up any minute to evict Eleanor's family and leave them destitute.

Eleanor devises a plan to bribe English officials, to prevent her home from being forfeited, but her plan goes awry. In Dublin, she is mistaken for a prostitute, and Eleanor decides to sell her body as a last ditch effort to fend off disaster. Innocent, unworldly Eleanor is terrified, but the English stranger is uncommonly handsome and kind. They do not exchange names, but their passionate night together dazzles them both. They part, but Eleanor continues to he haunted and disturbed by the encounter.

As is Sir Garrett Neville. Garrett, a young baronet, is newly arrived in Ireland. He is however, no supporter of Cromwell and his rapacious cronies; he deplores the violence and injustice done to Ireland. In fact, Garrett has a secret connection to the country, and was raised by a foster mother who filled his imagination with Irish tales and legends. Garrett has come not to grasp wealth, but in search of the land and people of those legends.

But Garrett has also come to buy land and settle down. By preposterous coincidence, Garrett purchases the debentures for Eleanor's home. He arrives, hoping to quickly get cozy in his new Irish abode; but he is shocked (though why is baffling) to discover his dream house still occupied. And occupied by none other than the beautiful, mysterious Eleanor, whom he thought never to see again.

As for Eleanor, she is even more shocked to see Garrett. Naturally she is frightened that he will reveal her terrible secret, and oust her from her home. The tension ought to have been unbearable at this point, but for me it wasn't. This meeting which takes place on page 151, could have been the starting point for the novel in medias res, as Horace would have it. The previous 150 pages, which monotonously chronicle Eleanor's dire circumstances, Garrett's background and hints of his Irish ancestry, and the supposedly charming doings of Eleanor's siblings, could have, and should have been backstory.

Even Eleanor and Garrett's night of passion would have been better explained later. Perhaps this is just my weird personal prejudice, but showing the H&H who have just met, making passionate love, under the circumstance of prostitution makes my eyes glaze over. I find it a little unbelievable okay, Laura Kinsale could have written it and made it fly, but as it is, I found this situation too grim to really root for Eleanor's orgasm. And I'm growing tired of heroes who only have intercourse with women of the lower classes, but never ladies of their own rank. How is Garrett's restricting himself to prostitutes, who are usually poor women desperate to survive, supposed to make him more attractive? More virtuous? More desirable?

From here on, the story of So Wild A Kiss is basically a variation on what I call the "Norman knight takes over Saxon lady's castle" plot. Garrett proves to be a genuinely nice guy, charming old women and children, and saving an outlawed priest from English dragoons. He even assures Eleanor of his good intentions and proposes marriage. She consents to a marriage of convenience, but despite Garrett's good deeds, she continues to rebuff him at every turn, until his final, inevitable exoneration. This leaves Eleanor's character, already flat, coming off stupid as well. Of course, I thought she ought to have thanked her lucky stars things turned out so well, but then the book would have ended on page 151.

Okay, if the book could have begun on page 151 and ended on page 151, what more is there to say? I really wished I had liked this book better, but I didn't. I have added a heart in the rating for the Irish setting. Another weird personal prejudice of mine.

--Meredith Moore


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