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Wild Highland Home

Mountain Heather
by Alexandra Raife
(Signet, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-451-19140-4
Previously published in the United Kingdom as "Grianan"

Gifted storyteller Alexandra Raife takes a chance by crafting an unusual plot in her third novel, but unfortunately it doesn't pay off for the romance reader. The novel's heroine is less than sympathetic, and the romance is weakened by an adulterous beginning and a bittersweet ending.

Sally Buchanan, like previous Raife heroines, is making a major change in her life. After a broken engagement to a man she didn't truly love, she seeks refuge at a small cottage owned by her Aunt Janey. This formidable woman also runs a country inn named Grianan, where Sally has promised to come and help out for a while. But first she needs some time and space to recover. Almost immediately, however, she meets a wonderful man and finds her world in turmoil again. Mike Danaher is attractive, intelligent, patient, understanding and married. Against her better judgement, Sally embarks upon an affair that she knows is only a temporary respite from reality. She doesn't ask Mike to leave his wife and children, and he doesn't offer. But eventually she feels ready to join her Aunt at Grianan, and leaves Mike, knowing that he has helped cure the self-doubts caused by her broken engagement.

Sally was raised by her intelligent but aloof father after her mother deserted the family when Sally was very young. Aunt Janey represents the only warmth she experienced as a child. By now Sally has learned to keep herself emotionally distant from other people, but Grianan is a magical, beautiful place, and Sally's reserve starts to thaw. Then several tragedies occur, and she has to look deep inside herself to discover how much she is willing to sacrifice for love and loyalty.

A major part of my disappointment with Mountain Heather was the adulterous relationship between Sally and Mike that starts up within the first 50 pages of the novel. Though Sally considers herself "noble" because she doesn't ask Mike for any sort of permanent relationship, I couldn't get over my indignation long enough to root for their romance. Frankly, Sally takes a little bit too long to grow up and realize how selfish she has been in a number of ways. I'm the first one to appreciate character growth and development, but in this case the changes came too late in the story to satisfy me.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot, but there's a major twist in the romance between Mike and Sally that gave me a jolt. Let's just say that if you remember the Harrison Ford movie Regarding Henry, you'll have some idea of what's in store. The resolution of their relationship is supposed to demonstrate how far Sally has come in terms of "giving, not taking," but because of the unusual situation it was more depressing than uplifting for me.

The rewarding part of the novel comes from watching Sally gradually re-establish her family ties, first with Aunt Janey, then with a half-sister she barely knows, and finally with her mother and father. She also spends some time with the family living at nearby Drumveyn, who will be familiar to those who read Raife's debut novel of the same name.

Alexandra Raife knows how to tell an interesting, character-driven story, and I would like to think of Mountain Heather as an interesting experiment that didn't quite work. I recommend her previous novels, Drumveyn and Wild Highland Home, and am optimistic that her next effort will find me firmly back in her camp.

--Susan Scribner

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