The Way Home by Megan Chance
(Harper, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-06-108-491-3
From my many years of reading romance novels, I know it's the rare book indeed that manages to offer the reader more than a mild surprise. The Way Home by Megan Chance delivers a sucker punch that challenged just about all of my pre-conceived notions about what a romance should be. Pick any romance novel cliché and the author successfully demolishes it, creating a story of rare intelligence and sensitivity, with characters so richly drawn, you'll feel as if you've met real people, with all their faults and foibles, instead of the cardboard cut-outs that too often inhabit love stories.

The Way Home centers on Eliza Beaudry, daughter of a Texas dirt farmer who will do whatever it takes to escape from her family's hardscrabble existence. Possessed of much beauty, but little education or polish, Eliza foolishly bets her hopes and dreams for the future on a traveling gambler named Cole Wallace. Cole is reckless, handsome, and charming, possessing all the requisite qualities of your standard romance novel hero, including a sexy romance-novel name.

But guess what? Cole is not the hero. Oh no, that would be too easy. The author has much bigger plans for the reader and for the complex characters she's created. The hero is Cole's shy, younger brother Aaron, who runs the family farm, writes poetry, can hardly utter an articulate sentence in Eliza's presence, and hasn't stepped foot into town in more than five years for reasons that it wouldn't be fair to divulge.

Aaron is handsome, but he's never arrogant, or sardonic. He doesn't fight gun battles, wear armor or spy for the crown. Measured by traditional romance novel standards, Aaron doesn't have many of the qualities we've come to expect from our heroes.

But somehow the author draws this character with such vivid clarity that when Cole dumps his responsibility for Eliza on Aaron, we understand why Aaron takes the abuse and why Eliza would come to love him. In subtle but effective ways, the author shows us the true heroism of this man's life -- the bravery needed to face one's personal demons, and the strength of character that allows a man to remain loyal to his family and duty when times are hard.

Eliza is no saint either. But the author has done such a good job of portraying her life and the events that motivate her, we come to understand, if not approve, the decisions she makes. Often when romance heroines do dumb things, we despise them. But Eliza is so desperate to escape, you have pity for her pathetic array of choices.

There's not much more I can tell you about this book without revealing too many plot details. Watching the love develop Aaron and Eliza, two characters who have been deeply wounded by the prejudices of their so-called Christian neighbors, is as delightful a reading experience as I've had this year. The author deserves much credit for never sugarcoating the harsh realities of life in 19th century Texas, while still weaving together a unique love story that I'm betting will find a permanent place in your heart.

--Leslie McClain

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