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Belonging by Alexandra Raife
(Signet, $5.99, G) ISBN 0-451-19818-2
As a woman's gradual journey towards a sense of purpose and belonging, this fourth novel by British author Alexandra Raife succeeds admirably. As a romance, it fails miserably. While I was rooting for the heroine to succeed, I wanted her to end up with a better hero than the one she was given.

Rebecca Urquhart is running from an encounter that has turned her life upside down. She leaves behind her busy, comfortable life in Edinburgh and seeks solace at Ardlonach, a family home that has been turned into a hotel by her cousin, Tony. But if she's looking for a peaceful idyll where she can find some time to think, she's in for a big surprise. Rebecca arrives at Ardlonach to find that Tony has run off with another woman, leaving his flighty wife, Una, to run the hotel. To make matters worse, Tony had the grandiose idea of running a "survival school" for businessmen on the estate's grounds. He had already booked several groups and recruited a staff for the project before his disappearance.

Rebecca is a strong-willed, direct woman who never backs down from a challenge. She is willing to help Una run the hotel, but she knows nothing about operating a survival school. She does know that she doesn't trust Innes Mann, the surly man Tony had hired to lead the wilderness tours. She is not sure how to assess Dan McNee, the school's second-in-command. At times he is helpful, but at others he's maddeningly aloof.

As Spring turns to Summer, Rebecca gradually finds great satisfaction in this new challenge. Together with an unlikely group of employees, Rebecca keeps Ardlonach afloat, despite the fact that Tony had left financial matters in a precarious state.

Like Raife's previous novels, Belonging is slow but gradually engaging, with emphasis on the characters. It's easy to become involved with Rebecca's struggles to run Ardlonach, as she soothes demanding guests and confronts the odious Innes. Rebecca and her diverse employees remind the reader of those movies in which the rag-tag sports team pulls together and somehow wins the championship. The secondary characters, especially Una, are delightfully detailed, and there are several interesting subplots.

The most glaring weak point of the novel is the romance between Rebecca and Dan McNee. He is, quite frankly, a cold fish. He's presented as the only type of man who can be a good match for Rebecca's forceful personality, but I was offended by the notion that a strong woman can only be satisfied with an insensitive man. Strength doesn't have to equal lack of emotion. When Rebecca finally opens her heart to Dan about the secret that drove her from Edinburgh, his response is shockingly brutal and cruel. And rather than Dan getting down on his knees and begging for forgiveness, Rebecca ends up apologizing to him. He does finally tell her about a past marriage gone wrong that has soured him on "needy women," but his defense is tepid at best. Frankly, I'm tired of heroes who act like jerks because they were hurt once.

The plot regarding Rebecca's secret is also problematic. The reader knows from the beginning that something is tormenting the heroine, but the truth is not revealed until the final 50 pages. Because the reader is kept in the dark about Rebecca's inner turmoil, her character feels underdeveloped and the denouement is hollow.

Despite these concerns, I'm still a fan of this talented author. Even flawed, her books are more interesting to read than most. But I can't say this is my favorite effort of hers, and I would urge readers who are looking for a cozy, charming British novel to locate her first two novels, Drumveyn and Wild Highland Home, instead.

--Susan Scribner

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