Night After Night by Kate Donovan
(Zebra, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-8217-7273-2
This book is almost surreal. Nearly every character is cheerful, polite, honest, friendly, generous, brave and obliging. The children are well behaved and the adults make speeches full of homespun sweetness and light. It’s sort of a Stepford western.

Maggie Gleason had a troubled childhood. When she was eight, it was discovered that her troubled “twin,” Ian, was actually the child of their wet nurse and that the wet nurse was raising Brian, Maggie’s real brother. Maggie’s beloved Ian was dragged away, screaming, to join his real mother. When the children were 14, Ian burst into the Gleason house, shot Brian to death and was hauled off to prison where Maggie was told he died.

Now Maggie’s father is dead and, hoping to start a new life, she approaches a matchmaker (Mr. Braddock, of the cutesily named Happily Ever After Co.). Maggie doesn’t want a husband (how unusual - she’s determined never to marry) but she hopes Braddock might match her with a job.

Braddock arranges a teaching position for Maggie in Shasta Falls, California, where she arrives in a state of bliss. “No one here knew about her tragic past, and so when they looked at her, it would be with light hearts and confident expectations. After all, they had brought her to their lovely hamlet for a single, glorious purpose-to entrust her with the minds of their precious children.” Clearly, the children aren’t the only thing that’s precious around here.

It fulfills all her dreams. She quickly makes lots of friends, all the children love to come to school, and everyone is anxious to match the pretty new schoolmarm with their most eligible bachelor.

The only fly in the ointment is the presence of grumpy, reclusive Alex Coburn hogging the library at her boarding house - until Maggie receives several ominous notes that suggest she’s being stalked.

Aside from all the two-dimensional happy-face characters, I had several problems with this book. Even in a genre that specializes in idiotic motivations, “I can never marry because the boy I thought was my brother shot my real brother then died in prison” is a bit perplexing. Of course, it’s hard to blame someone whose thinking is this convoluted for being muddled, and this girl could tie Gordian knots in an inch of string.

Coburn, although clearly the male lead, is a ghost for almost two-thirds of the book. To try to fool us into thinking there’s a romance, the author has Maggie spin wild fantasies about him based on tiny scraps of information.

One moment, he’s a bold warrior-poet in the Gaelic tradition, because he’s handsome and knows how to use a gun. Then, when she’s searching his room, hoping to find he’s sketched her (and thereby proving that he’s attracted to her) she find a scrapbook of “wanted” posters. Suddenly - “…he hunts! Hunts human beings, because to him, they mean nothing.” Maggie, get a grip. Watching her concoct one fevered delusion after the next out of her own lurid imagination got tedious - particularly when there was little interaction between them.

Another problem is that the rest of the story has nothing to do with the romance, such as it is. Maggie hugs the Stepford adults, is the ideal teacher to the Stepford tykes, and finds a mother figure in her Stepford landlady. Any time the subject of Coburn comes up, everybody shrugs and says they don’t know much about him because he keeps to himself.

Actually, the reader would have to do the same. The two have virtually no relationship right up until an extraordinarily dispassionate consummation that is almost shocking in its cold-blooded brevity. This is someone’s idea of romance?

Near the end, a dark cloud descends onto Maggie and Shasta Falls, is summarily dealt with, and Maggie bravely finds the silver lining without apparently being touched by the horrific incident - much as she remained impervious to the terrible events of her childhood. The End.

If you like westerns that are a cross between Little House and the Care Bears, by all means, pick this up for yourself. As for me, when I want robots, I’ll read science fiction.

--Judi McKee

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