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Nell by Jeanette Baker
(Sonnet, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-671-01753-7
*****
One of my tests of a good book is how the characters stay with me after the book is finished. If I keep thinking about them, if I spend time imagining what their lives will be like after the "happily ever after" provided by the author, if I actually miss them when the book is done, then I know I've read a fine story. Another test is whether a book will keep me up reading way past my bedtime. Nell passed both these tests with flying colors.

Jeanette Baker has written a riveting tale that links Ireland's tragic past with the often unhappy present. She has crafted not one but two love stories which pit the lovers against political and social forces that seem destined to separate them. At the same time, she has illuminated a portion of Ireland's unhappy history in a skillful fashion (OK, there are a few minor historical errors) so that the historical material enriches the story. This is historical romance at its best.

Nell is eleven year old Jillian Fitzgerald's best friend. Her parents believe her to be imaginary. In fact, Nell is a visitor from the past. She is Eleanor Fitzgerald, daughter of Gerald Og Fitzgerald, the ninth earl of Kildare and the most important and powerful man in Ireland in 1537. She is also a distant connection of young Jilly and their fates are connected.

Jilly is the daughter of privilege, a member of the Ulster Protestant aristocracy. Jilly's other best friend is thirteen year old Frankie Maguire, the son of the Fitzgerald's kennel keeper and one of Ulster's oppressed Catholics. They first meet when Nell and Jilly rescue the family's prize collie from a poacher's trap. Over the next four years, their improbable relationship grows more important to each of them. But they are rudely ripped apart when Frankie is accused of killing Jilly's unpleasant older brother.

As part of her father's plans to increase his power, Nell is betrothed to Donal O'Flaherty, the young chieftain of his clan and the most powerful man in Ireland's far west. Donal is loathe to ally himself with the Anglicized Geraldines, but he is bewitched by Nell's beauty and sweetness. The two fall in love, only to be rudely ripped apart when Henry VIII moves to destroy the Fitzgerald's power.

The road that these four lovers must trod to find their "happily ever after" is long and hard. Nell and Donal will have to overcome the machinations of Henry, her exile to England, and war and battle with the hated English. Jilly and Frankie will wait even longer to find each other again. They will finally meet over the negotiating table in Belfast where Frankie acts as the chief spokesman for Sinn Fein and Jillian is the representative of the British government.

When things look most hopeless, Jillian will be there to aid Nell and Nell will act to help her friend.

This is not a typical romance in one way. Our contemporary hero and heroine are separated not for months but for decades. During those years apart, the two must make choices about their lives which are often dictated by events over which they have little or no control. When they do find each other again, there are still seemingly impenetrable barriers to their love.

Baker handles her complex story in a masterful fashion. She interweaves the two love stories in such a way as to hold the reader's interest throughout. The fantasy elements in the tale likewise enrich the reading experience. And the writing is first rate.

I sincerely hope that Nell finds the large audience it deserves. Readers who appreciate complex, intense and meaningful novels will enjoy Nell. We romance readers often say we want something different and that we want authors to dare to expand their (and our) horizons. Baker has done just that. I enjoyed her last book, Irish Lady which explored some of these same themes. I loved Nell. I'm betting that you will, too.

--Jean Mason


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