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Until the Spring by Alexandra Raife
(Onyx, $5.99, G) ISBN 0-451-40914-0
I've had the responsibility for reviewing all five of British author Alexandra Raife's stateside releases. Raife is a talented storyteller whose gentle, slow-paced, character-driven novels can be very rewarding. However, looking back over previous reviews, I've noticed a disturbing downward trend in my ratings, from "recommended" to "acceptable." Has Raife's writing deteriorated, or have my tastes changed?

As in all of her novels, Raife begins Until the Spring with a heroine in a life-changing situation. Kate arrives at Allt Farr, an imposing but run-down estate in the Scottish highlands, wholly dependent on the kindness of strangers. Continuing her sheltered life in London is no longer an option; her adoptive parents have evicted her from their home to avoid the shame of her unwed pregnancy. Jeremy, the baby's father, is only too happy to pack Kate off to his close family friends, the Munros, with the promise that she will help out around the estate in return for room and board.

Small, delicate Kate is completely overwhelmed and intimidated, however, by the challenges of her new surroundings. The weather is dreadful, the physical tasks are beyond her, and the Munro family are less than thrilled to be saddled with "Jeremy's latest tart." But gradually, in her own quiet way, Kate wins over Grannie, the Munro family matriarch, as well as the three Munro siblings: flighty Harriet, distant Joanna, and dour caretaker Max.

Raife's heroines always undergo significant growth and character development, and Kate is no exception. She starts the novel as a timid, naive waif with no purpose in life. Through the course of the story, she finds a true home, a caring if cantankerous family, and genuine self-esteem as she takes pride in her physical accomplishments and her increasing ability to support the daily routine at Allt Farr. The turning point for Kate is a brutal snowstorm during which Max is forced to rely on Kate to help him save the lives of both animal and human residents.

Raife is extremely skilled at showing the small nuances that make up a character and the small but important ways that character is changed. But despite her growth, I never warmed up to Kate, who remained too passive for me. Three-quarters of the way through the novel, she is still desperately hoping for a reconciliation with the feckless Jeremy. When Jeremy acts as repugnantly (as the reader knew he would), it's up to Max, not Kate, to read him the riot act and kick him off the premises.

Therein lies the second major problem: the relationship with Max. I can accept the fact that the romance between Kate and Max is only a minor aspect of the plot. I have more of a problem, however, with the fact that it's such an unsatisfactory aspect. Max is described on the back cover of the novel as "brusque but tender," but it's difficult to see how the latter adjective applies to him at all. In addition, both Kate and Max realize that, given a 15-year age difference, Kate sees Max in a father/protector role. An Oedipal relationship with a grouchy, bossy older man is not my romantic ideal!

Kate's nightmare relationship with her adoptive parents, who dismiss her utterly when she reveals her pregnancy with the parting shot of "we never should have chosen you," is extremely disturbing and possibly even offensive to adoptive parents who fully love and cherish their children. (Although, as a prospective adoptive aunt, I may be overly sensitive to that aspect.)

The setting and theme of Until the Spring are similar to those of Raife's debut novel, Drumveyn, which earned rave reviews from me three years ago. To answer my original question, Raife's writing may not have deteriorated, but neither has it grown and developed. Maybe that's why I once looked forward to her upcoming releases with anticipation, but now feel no urge to put them on the top of my TBR pile.

--Susan Scribner

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