Rachel's Passage by Paula Reid
(Harper, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-06-101362-5
****
I am certainly recommending Paula Reid's compelling new historical romance, Rachel's Passage, but I should warn everyone at the outset that she ignores a number of the conventions that currently seem to govern the genre. She uses the first person in much of the book, telling the story first from the perspective of the heroine and then from that of the hero. She separates the hero and heroine for a long period of time. She includes what must technically be considered adultery. And she provides quite a bit of historical detail about the politics of the early republic.

If, like me, you are a reader who actually appreciates authors who are willing to take risks in the interests of creating characters who touch your heart and who, with their failings and foibles, seem immediate and real; if you enjoy watching a heroine grow and mature in the face of real adversity; if you like heroes who make mistakes but still remain sympathetic and about whom you care; then you will like Rachel's Passage.

The book is set in New Castle, Delaware, at the beginning of the 19th century but the drama begins in an attorney's office in Philadelphia. Rachel Mason needs a good lawyer. She is being sued for criminal conversation (adultery) by the man she thought she had divorced five years earlier. She cares little for her reputation; that she lost much earlier. But she does greatly fear that if she is convicted, she will lose that which she values most.

It is not easy to do a synopsis of Rachel's Passage. Such is the skill with which Reid unfolds her story, that this reviewer wants to be very careful not to spoil things for the prospective reader. So I am limited pretty much to what is on the back blurb.

Rachel's lawyer needs to know all the details of what has brought her to this pass. Because much of what she must tell him is of an intimate nature, she chooses to write rather than speak the story of her life and misfortunes. Thus, the first person narrative of her life.

When she was eighteen, Rachel fell in love with a young man who was working for her father. Peter was handsome and virile and everything an inexperienced young girl dreamt about. That he was also lazy and shiftless was not apparent to a sweet innocent in the throes of first love. It was, however, quite obvious to Rachel's parents. They wanted her to accept the offer of Seth Trahern, the owner of the town's newspaper and one of its most respected citizens. But at thirty, Seth seemed ancient to Rachel, and so she sent him away.

Peter decides to go to sea to make the money that will allow them to marry. He will be gone three months. But the months pass and Peter does not return. Finally, a desperate Rachel turns to Seth whose connections might allow him to find out what happened to the ship. The news is not good. All indications are that the ship had fallen prey to the British during the undeclared naval war that raged at the time. Rachel is understandable saddened but Seth's kindness begins her reevaluation of her onetime suitor.

Gradually, Rachel comes to see Seth in a new light. Perhaps it is her added maturity; perhaps it is her recognition of his sterling qualities. And so (I won't tell you how), the relationship is renewed and Rachel marries Seth.

Seth proves to be a considerate and caring husband. He knows that he was Rachel's second choice, but gradually they build a fine marriage. And then disaster strikes. And that's all I'm going to tell you!

Sometimes I'll read the end of a book because I'm not really enjoying myself and just want to find out what happens. Last night, I read the end of Rachel's Passage, not because I wasn't enjoying myself but because I had to get up at the crack of dawn today and couldn't afford to stay up all night. But I knew I couldn't fall asleep without knowing what happened. I was too involved with the characters. And today, as soon as I could, I devoured the rest of the book.

So, yes, I recommend Rachel's Passage. I am so glad to discover that there are editors and publishers who are willing to depart from what I perceive to be the increasingly stereotypical formulae that seem to govern the romance genre these days. Paula Reid (in her alter ego as Elizabeth Mansfield) has written some of my favorite regencies. There as here she more than once departed from convention. We need to encourage authors who are willing to try something different, especially when they succeed as well as Reid does in Rachel's Passage.

--Jean Mason


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