Till Next We Meet
by Karen Ranney, historical (2005)
Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-06-075737-X

Dearest Catherine,

I am home again, in a place I dreamed of for so many years. And I've bought you here, a woman who confuses, irritates, and charms me.

You love with such fervor that I wonder if you will ever surrender Henry. Life is for the living, Catherine, and I wonder if time will tech you that essential lesson.

How do I battle a ghost, especially when that ghost is me?

That letter, composed by the hero Moncrief (his first name will, I suppose, remain the author's secret until she chooses to tell) in his mind, sums up the premise of this story, one which, thankfully, is free from silly self-professed bluestockings and rakes. Catherine is the widow of Harold "Harry" Dunnan, although they had been married for a month only before he joined the army and fought - and died - in the war against France in Canada. She doesn't know it but Colonel Moncrief is actually the man who wrote those letters under the name of her husband. These letters have Catherine falling so deeply in love with Harry that she sinks into depression after Harry's death. When she nearly overdoses on laudanum, Moncrief realizes that he can't just stand by the sidelines and watch the woman he secretly harbors a burning torch for waste away. His brothers have died and he is the new Duke of Lymond. When he swoops in to marry Catherine, she finds herself elevated in rank from a mere squire's daughter to a Duchess. But the ghost of Harry lingers around, sharing the bed of these two people, and preventing Catherine from reciprocating to Moncrief's affection. Oh dear.

From the start, it is revealed that Harry is a sadistic, womanizing, gambling-addicted jerk who married Catherine only for her money, which is a big mistake on the author's part, if you ask me, because it reduces the conflict between the main characters into a simplistic and even clichéd shade of black versus white. At one point, the heroine's housekeeper Glynneth speculates very accurately that it really doesn't take much for Catherine to let the memories of Harry go, and indeed, after all that angst about Harry-this and Harry-that, I'm quite surprised myself that it takes only one conversation between Catherine and Moncrief for her to start believing the worst of Harry. (Of course, Harry is the worst.) It's a pity that this conversation doesn't take place earlier.

My problem with this story is that the author draws out the characters' lack of communication for too long. Oh, I'm not talking about big misunderstandings or silly leaps to absurd conclusions, let me be clear about this - I'm talking about how the characters often just don't talk about Harry and preferring to seethe in silence. For most of the dragged-out sagging middle that plagues this book, Moncrief and Catherine's interactions consist of some interrupted heavy petting (started by he) that stops when she retreats and he lets her go, all the while with him thinking he shouldn't and wishing that she would stay. The author introduces Moncrief's rather unpleasant in-laws, the ridiculously miserly sister-in-law Juliana and the hypochondriac Hortensia, as well as Catherine's ridiculously pinch-faced mother-in-law (Harry's mother), but these characters don't do much than to stir the pot a little. Along the way, I find myself wishing that the characters would do something more than just dance around each other.

The letters between Catherine and Moncrief are lovely to read. They are like love sonnets laced with a little bit of melancholy and plenty of affection and love. I find myself wondering why Moncrief isn't a little more enthusiastic in his courtship of Catherine. No, wait, let me rephrase that. I wonder why Moncrief doesn't court Catherine instead of just standing there and waiting for her to come to him. He feels guilty about impersonating Harry in those letters, I suppose. But come on, if he loves her that much, surely he can be a little earnest and forward in his pursuit of her? He gives Catherine a month to get ready before she shares his bed and frankly, a month in this book translates to plenty of unexciting pages. The conflicts the author introduce in the meantime - someone probably trying to kill Catherine, Juliana being a bitch, and Harry's mom being a passive-aggresive pinch-faced killjoy - aren't interesting enough to compensate for the standstill in the relationship between Catherine and Moncrief.

It is only once the month is up that the two characters come to life again. Unfortunately, it is late in the story when this happens. Moncrief is already a very attractive hero as he is honest, reliable, and steadfast, but when he starts acting like an alpha-ish sort of hero, clearly letting everyone know that his devotion is to Catherine and his home first and foremost and no one will come between them - yowza, what a hero. Emotions long kept in the backburner through the tedious sagging middle burn through the pages and the love scenes are erotic enough to make me wish that I have a bigger air-conditioner in my place.

But ultimately, the very good late third arrives a little too late to compensate for my disappointment that for too long Moncrief is content to step back and let Catherine go while Catherine ultimately lets go too easily the memories of Harry. Perhaps my disappointment is seeded in the fact that ultimately Harry is a little too obvious as a Bad Ex character and this robs the conflict between the two main characters of complexity and depths. The letters are beautiful, the love scenes are a blend of poetry and eroticism, and when these two finally admit their attraction to each other, Till Next We Meet flies. But this book also has the characters taking too long to meander around in their attraction and there are too many resolutions in this book that are resolved in neat and tidy ways that ultimately sabotages the story and making it less interesting and more stereotypical than it should be.

My final impression of this book is that there seems to be some attempts by the author to keep the story from being too "dark" and Catherine's grief from being too "real", as if the author is trying to find a balance between vicarious accessibility and cathartic complexity. Unfortunately, the balance is a little off in Till Next We Meet. Hopefully the next book by the author is less tentative when it comes to fully embracing the premise of the story.

Rating: 83

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