by Susan Wiggs, historical (1999)
MIRA, $5.99, ISBN 1-55166-534-4
Hunter Calhoun, the brother of Ryan from The Charm School, is a broken man. His estranged wife had died, leaving him with two children whom he couldn't reach at, much less understand. Blue, the older boy, wouldn't speak a word after his mother's death. The younger girl Bel talks a lot but wouldn't reveal anything of her feelings or wants. And the Calhoun fortunes are long gone. In a desperate attempt to recoup his fortunes, Hunter banks everything he has on a reputed prize-winning stallion named Sir Finnegan. Unfortunately, Finn arrives totally insane as a result of his captors' cruelty and the turbulent storms of the sea voyage.
Hunter seeks out Henry Flyte, the famous horsemaster of mythical proportions. What he finds is Henry being dead for some time. In his place is the daughter Eliza.
Part I of the book deserves a place on my keeper shelf. It is a beautifully drawn tapestry of the complicated yet irresistible attraction between Hunter and Eliza, interspersed by some really invigorating scenes of Eliza taming Finn. This part of the book is so vividly drawn that every word seems charged with need and desire. I'm still feeling quite... haunted by the beautiful quiet moments between Hunter and Eliza as they lay on the treetops, talking about dreams and hopes. Miss Wiggs draw a close parallel between Eliza and the heroine in the Shakespearean play The Tempest, and it seems to fit.
The book however begins to falter in Part II onwards, when circumstances force Eliza to return with Hunter to Albion, Hunter's place. Here, Eliza suddenly turns into Mary Poppins, nanny extraordinaire as she tackles the insurmountable task of bring Blue and Bel out of their shells. I admit these scenes, however cliched, are still so wonderfully written that I can find no fault with them. Disappointed that Ms Wiggs has decided to push aside the Horsemaster's Daughter for Mary Maria Poppins the Runaway Innocent Who Is Actually Supernanny, well, a little. But I keep reading nonetheless. Even when playing Supernanny, Eliza is a wonderful woman, generous, kind, and free with her love.
But I can find fault with Hunter. He turns into a passive drunkard whose function has switched from being a worthy man for Eliza to an obstacle Eliza has to shove at repeatedly to make any leeway with the children. Hunter becomes an observer, a drunk one at that, and his insistence on not seeing Eliza as anything but a horsemaster's daughter and governess while at the same not above coping a feel here and there... I lose my respect for such a man. Eliza's willingness to be pawed by this man I can understand - that woman is unused to such emotion. But Hunter, a sophisticated man when it comes to this sort of thing... hmmmph.
Ultimately I question what Eliza sees in Hunter. What Hunter sees in Eliza is obvious: she's a vivid, bright spark of flame among the absence of any meaning or order in his life. But why does Eliza insist on feeling for Hunter? All Hunter does is to take everything from her - her horsetraining skills to restore his fortune, her body when he needs succor, her company when he wants it... what does he offer her in return? I never can understand and finally chalk up Eliza's devotion to this man to the fact that Hunter's the first guy she comes in close contact with. Heck, I am hoping she would fall for funny, nice, charming cousin Charles at one point! Anyone but drunk, dour Hunter who drowns all his complications in life in the whiskey bottle all the way to the last four chapters.
I could like this book much more were not for the fact that Hunter is an unworthy hero for Eliza. I feel that ultimately this book works not as a romance but a well-written story of a young woman's coming of age in face of adversity.
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