When The Laird Returns
by Karen Ranney, historical (2002)
Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-380-81301-7

When most authors will just toss in lots of external conflicts or the heroine's having sex with the hero in the name of saving thy father/mother/house/cat/orphanage as a substitute for romance, Karen Ranney always goes the extra mile to depict the process of falling in love. Sure, one could argue that Ms Ranney's dialogues can be a bit too grandiose or melodramatic, but when it comes to falling in love, what's a little well-done melodrama, eh? I'll only start complaining when she starts putting in those awful "minority triumphs and makes everybody in the courtroom weep as they give the heroine in the accused stand a standing ovation" scenes.

When The Laird Returns is a story propelled by the two characters' falling in love. They talk about it. They feel it. They do it. What they don't do is to chase after evil traitorous cousins, kidnap each other - not much action, anyway. This story can be slow, and it will feel even slower because the characters can be very, very introspective.

So I'm torn. On one hand, I love reading about the wide swathe of emotions, so restrained yet so filled to the brim (am I making sense?), coursing through hero Alisdair MacLean (son of the couple in One Man's Love) and heroine Iseabal Drummond. On the other hand, these two characters' introspection can create a sucking-in vacuum force that threatens to suck out all passion from this story. Yes, it can be very cold as well as passionate here.

Plot, you ask? Hmm, let me put it this way: I bet whoever is paid to write the synopsis of this story in the inset page must have yanked out a few handfuls of follicles on how to spell out the plot without giving the whole story away. Because falling in love here is the main story. But I'll try. If I spoil things, don't blame me. Karen Ranney can be so much like that Hong Kong arthouse director Wong Kar Wai sometimes - they can go on and on for ages in a scene where the two characters just talk and talk about their feelings in a moody, arty way.

Alisdair is on his way to England - he is a captain of a ship - when he makes a pit stop to his land. His parents are now in hiding, or at least, living under new identities because Daddy was a Scottish Zorro in his own book. Alisdair chooses to live as a seafaring hero, and now he is on his way to England to reject his father's title bestowed on him.

He stumbles upon a lass stuck in a pit. He saves her, only to realize that she is the daughter of the man who now squats on his land. Magnus Drummond, a brutal man, demands that Alisdair weds his daughter in return for his giving up the land. Alisdair agrees, and now he and Iseabal are stuck together. Iseabal is glad to escape her brutal father, and when Alisdair comforts her so tenderly - this is platonic made beautiful, really - when she is seasick, she falls head over heels in love with him. I can see why - Alisdair is just this close to being too good to be true. Kind, tender, understanding, gallant, and he can sure discuss his finer feelings, wow, put a cup of java in his hands and a black turtleneck on him and we will get an artiste.

And so they go. Alisdair wants an annulment, because he cannot force her to be his wife. She is hurt because here she is again, rejected and cast aside. They talk about this. They talk about how they feel a lot, so much that it's pretty much all they talk about. Funny thing, they talk about how they feel, but they never really seem to care about how the other is feeling. Introspection is the name of the game here, I guess. Alisdair falls for Iseabal because he feels jealous and hurt and he can't imagine her with any other man. She falls because she feels safe with him. It's all moving inwards, if you know what I'm saying - everyone's so concerned about how things affect him or her first, damn everyone else.

And Iseabal can be very frustrating to follow, because while she knows her options, she tends to whine about how lousy her options are instead of making a decision and making the best out of it. Yes, her life sucks, but really, please, do something, Iseabal!

It's a slow dance to the happy ending, although some external subplots kick in to speed up things a little late in the story. But I'm fascinated nonetheless, because Iseabal does develop as a character. In the end, she's a more proactive creature than she is earlier, and besides, her vulnerabilities and strengths are multifaceted. She does display some inner steel even as she cringes at the obstacles in her life. Alisdair seems like a one-dimensional Gallant Beta at first, but he will display some stoic but moving nobility that will elevate him to being a larger than life paladin of the romances.

In short, Karen Ranney makes beautiful melodrama out of her human characters while keeping one foot on the ground. Her prose flies high with whimsical notions of love, laced with furious passion - when these characters declare that they will die for each other, oh, I believe them, beautiful, sick, and wonderful lunatics that they are - but there's always an undercurrents of earthy, maybe bittersweet weariness. Love is never without a price to pay, as Iseabal and Alisdair will learn. Love hurts, but damn, bring it on!

Placing one hand on Alisdair's arm, she felt the heat from his body, a warmth that seemed to reach out and envelop her as well. Although bloodied, he was safe. Bruised, but not broken. Only one other emotion besides gratitude could find its way into her heart. Love.

She would protect him with her life, shield his body with her own, defend him and support him. The essence of love in all its guises - wanton, maternal, supportibe, passionate, and courageous.

How can I resist such unabashedly romantic declaration?

Iseabal's mother finds love again with her old flame in a secondary romance, but that one is very tired and predictable. And the pacing of When The Laird Returns, especially at the early stages of the story, can be really slow and awkward. Nonetheless, this story remains an enthralling read, if only for the sheer novelty of a romance novel that is actually about falling in love.

When The Laird Returns may not fly as high as it could have been, but it remains a bittersweet read to savor.

Rating: 89

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