Wild Highland Home
by Alexandra Raife
(Signet, $5.99, G) ISBN 0-451-19469-1
Wild Highland Home is a worthy successor to Alexandra Raife's debut novel, Drumveyn. This author is rapidly putting herself on my A list through her gentle, character-driven contemporaries.

"The morning she woke and could not remember the name or face of the man who had left her bed a couple of hours earlier Clare knew with absolute certainty that she must make a drastic and irreversible change in her life."

Thus begins Clare Sommerville's strange odyssey. She has spent the past two years following her husband's death using sex and alcohol to avoid the pain and ambivalence she had about their relationship. Now she knows that she must get away from everything familiar in order to rediscover herself.

Her choice is an odd one, to be sure. From London, she travels north to Scotland and chooses the most remote, run-down house imaginable. The Larach, which translates into "ruin," has no electricity or central heating and can't be reached by car. But Clare is determined to buy it and find out the limits of her strength.

As in Drumveyn, Raife takes a chance by creating a mostly unsympathetic character and betting that the reader will stick with her as she develops into a human being. Clare's choice is so unfathomable that I doubted her sanity. Her initial patronizing attitude of the local villagers who welcome her unequivocally is mortifying. But little by little Clare begins to appreciate the beauty of the countryside and the goodness of her neighbors. She finds the inner resources to stick through the physical difficulties and even discovers her own skills and gifts to offer in return for all of the help she has received.

The love story is an unconventional one. Donald Macrae comes to Clare's aid many times and she keeps him company as he cares for his flock of sheep. But he is married, albeit unhappily, and his wife is terminally ill. The feelings Clare has for Donald must remain hidden for many months and the relationship can only be openly acknowledged in the final 50 pages of the novel. But it is a love story, despite Donald and Clare's reticence. Donald's unflagging assistance is a labor of love, and Clare's unwillingness to seduce Donald despite his obvious unhappiness is a sign of how much she has matured.

Through Clare the reader is introduced to a host of interesting secondary characters as well. There are no explosions or other dramatic plot twists, only the rewarding story of a woman gradually finding herself, the home she never had, and her true love in the process.

A few words of warning might be in order. First, the topic of homosexuality comes up several times, and while the author stops short of being homophobic, the picture that emerges of gay men is not flattering and definitely not politically correct. Also, vegetarians should stay away. Donald is a hunter and trapper and makes no apologies for it. The British vernacular often stymied me, and I inferred some things only in context. Finally, a dog dies. I know for some readers that is an unforgivable lapse. It bothered me all through the happily ever after.

But despite those caveats, I highly recommend this gentle, heartwarming novel. It would make a wonderful "Masterpiece Theatre" series.

--Susan Scribner

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