by Karen Ranney, historical (2010)
Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-177184-2
I've always believed that author Karen Ranney excels at create exquisite scenes of romantic interactions and quiet introspection, so much so that sometimes it hurts as much as it is enjoyable to read those scenes. But if the author has one weakness, it's that sometimes her plot doesn't measure up to the character study and development taking place in her book. A Highland Duchess is a rather extreme example of a book from this author that demonstrates both her strength and weakness. The plot, to be blunt, is terrible. But the main characters have a romance that is just fabulous to read.
Women are powerless back in the 19th century, as they own no money to their name and are entirely dependent on the charity of their male relatives and/or husbands. Emma Herridge knows this too well. She was married off by her father to the Duke of Herridge despite the fact that it was an open secret that the Duke was a licentious and cruel man, and she endured and endured the ordeals she was subjected to until his death. And now, about a year or so later into her widowhood, her uncle is forcing her to marry someone else in an arrangement that would, naturally, be to his advantage rather than hers. Meanwhile, these men are freely spending her money even as they continue to make her life a living hell.
When the story opens, Emma is surprised by a man in her bedroom. He claims to be looking for the Tulloch Sgàthán, an old mirror that, according to the intruder, rightfully belongs to the Tullochs in Perth, Scotland. They are interrupted by her uncle, and the thief hides out of sight... until Emma's uncle begins beating her. Our intruder, Ian McNair, cannot just stand by - he whacks the man and, in the spur of moment, decides to bring Emma along with him so that he can ransom her for the mirror. As you can imagine, Emma and Ian soon share a brief moment of passion but they will soon part ways. It is only later when they meet again that they will have to deal fully with the fact that they are madly in love with each other but they are not free to indulge in their passions.
The plot has plenty of unanswered questions and obvious contrivances, so much so that external events and conflicts seem to be inserted into this story merely to catalyze various developments in the romance between Emma and Ian. For example, the Tulloch Sgàthán never seems so important as to warrant a drastic action as a break-in by Ian, who is also the Earl of Buchane - the characters place little importance on it after the abduction of Emma has taken place. [spoiler starts] It is also never made clear why Bryce McNair would want to take Emma as a bride when he is clearly disinterested in her - I'd expect him to force her uncle, whom he is blackmailing, to come up with ways of payment that he will find more favorable. [spoiler ends] The plot, therefore, never really comes together well. Things happen, often without rhyme or reason, solely to bring the hero and the heroine together. The villains are one-dimensionally nasty, a fact that doesn't help lend the story any semblance of believability.
But oh, the romance. Oh, you may want to be aware that Ian is an engaged man when he sleeps with Emma - I personally don't find this aspect problematic, but you may beg to differ. Anyway, back to these two, Ian and Emma bond in a manner that is just exquisite to read. Karen Ranney is always good at creating small talks and little moments that are by themselves may seem trivial but these scenes all come together to create a heartfelt tapestry of a love so right in bloom. It is tad unbelievable to believe that Emma can be so easily receptive to another man's touch so soon after what her late husband had subjected her to, but in a way, it makes sense because Emma is already convinced by that point that Ian is everything her husband isn't. For her, lovemaking with Ian is a form of healing as it assures her that she can find pleasure in the act without feeling ill-used or degraded.
Ian is a nice guy, one of those heroes that respect and love the heroine without going all out with the chest-thumping and "Me! Alpha! Big dong!" trumpeting. If he has a flaw, it's that he sometimes passively stands by and lets the heroine walk away from him because he's convinced that he has to do the right thing. But it's the same flaw shared by the heroine - she too takes a while to realize that sometimes she has to reach out and seize happiness instead of letting the opportunity pass by. Emma can be very passive at first, but such reticence and willingness to withdraw into her shell and just endure is much in character for a woman of her time and her situation. Emma has very few options in life: as long as a man controls her life, she can't do anything else but to endure. In the brief moment with Ian, when she is free to be who she is, she learns that she may possess the courage to seize a chance at happiness. But it takes a while for her to fully embrace that courage. When it happens though, it gives rise to a bittersweet scene between her and Ian that is both heartwarming and heartbreaking to read.
If there is a problem with Emma, it's that she is so self-absorbed about her woes and blues that she seems unbelievably oblivious late in the story to the fact that she has to protect herself since someone is out to kill her. When the hero initiates measures to protect her, her reaction is pretty much, oh yeah, she would have done the same thing... eventually.
All things considered, A Highland Duchess is both a glorious and terrible read. The plot feels contrived from start to finish, that's the big negative. But Ian and Emma are such well-drawn characters and their romance is one of the best ever from this author, in my opinion. The quiet scenes between Ian and Emma are just fabulous. Therefore, I don't know how to give this book a grade that accurately represents its flaws and strengths. I'd just have to go with my gut reaction, I'm afraid. I love the romantic aspects of this story, so I'd be giving this book a score that reflects this. But I hope I'd given a good idea of how I feel about the weaknesses of the story so that readers who prefer a strong plot-driven story will know to approach this book with caution.
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