This book has been in my TBR since it was released as an ebook back in August. Okay, not that long, but it is a book I’ve been meaning to read and never gotten around to. Since this month’s theme is a book recommended by someone else, and since several someones have urged me to read this book, it seemed to fit. I know of at least one other TBR Challenge participant who read this book in February as well, so multiple reviews will be available.
Guhrke’s books are hit and miss with me; I loved And Then He Kissed Her, but couldn’t get into the other Girl Bachelor books. Wedding of the Season made me a litte crazy, but its sequel Scandal of the Year was really good and different. And I’ve been stuck about halfway through the third Abandoned at the the Altar book, Trouble at the Wedding, for about a month now. Hearing from others that this older Guhrke title was worth reading intrigued me enough that I bought it. It was originally published in 1996.
Conor’s Way is a historical romance set in America (yay!), in the South, in the aftermath of the Civil War. The historical South as a setting is often a problem for me; if it’s portrayed believably, I don’t like the people and have a hard time enjoying the book; if it’s romanticized, I get sidetracked by how that seems to trivialize the very real issues surrounding slavery and the economy built on its back. I have had trouble with pretty much every romance I’ve read in this period for that reason. This one struck just the right balance for me.
Olivia Maitland grew up on a plantation, and she’s now its owner and proprietor. Her parents and brothers have all died, casualties of the war or related phenomenon. Her best friend also died, which is why she has three daughters (her friend’s) to raise, even though she is single and has never even been kissed. She’s trying to run her plantation, Peachtree, without any help but the girls’, while resisting the efforts of the local tycoon/bully to persuade her to sell the land to him for his railroad expansion scheme.
What worked so well for me was the way Olivia thinks of the war and the end of the way of life she was born to. While she misses some aspects of life on a “beautiful and gracious plantation” where “she had been born and bred to play the piano and host garden parties,” she doesn’t wish for those days to return. She knows they can’t, and she wouldn’t want them to, because she has accepted that her way of life was unsupportable.
She could remember when all the slaves had departed in ’63. Only Nate had stayed on — dear, dependable Nate. She’d given him twenty acres of prime land for his own farm, but she knew he hadn’t stayed because of that. Twenty-one then, she had watched the other slaves go, and she had realized the truth she had been shielded from all her life — that slaves weren’t happy being slaves, that up-country white folks didn’t care what happened to the plantations, and that the beauty and grace of her childhood had been a false and fragile existence all along.
In other romances I’ve read in this era, the heroine has come across to me either as spoiled and selfish, unable to see slavery as evil and wrong, or as an anachronistic activist for the rights of slaves and former slaves. Mostly I think this reflects my ambivalence about the actual South in this period. I have a hard time believing that people accepted slavery, and yet I know that they did. Intellectually I know how that has to have worked, and that some of those folks were in other respects good, loving people, but emotionally I can’t accept that, and so I rarely can accept them as “heroes” or “heroines.” No other romance writer has given me a character believably of her time and place and yet aware of how very wrong the “peculiar institution” was.
Part of that is Guhrke’s writing — I got really caught up in Olivia’s point of view (and in Conor’s; they were both very real to me). But the narrative timeline also contributes; Olivia in the “present” has come to peace with both the loss of her lifestyle and its essential wrongness, and having her flash back to it made it easier to believe, because in the book’s present she is living in a way that proves her sincerity. Perhaps most strongly, Olivia’s journey to this point has taken her expected lifestyle away in more ways than one; as somewhat of a social outcast, because of her embarrassing alcoholic father, she has a complex and compelling experience of loss that goes beyond that shared by other young women of her class.
Conor Branigan is a classic wounded romance hero. Olivia finds him beaten up and abandoned in the road; he also has older scars, inside and out, from his experiences in his native Ireland, including imprisonment and torture at the hands of the English. (The plight of the Irish and of American slaves are contrasted subtly here, because no actual former slaves appear as characters.) Of course he needs Olivia’s help to recover from his beating, and of course he then must return the favor by helping her with her work on the plantation. Their love feels inevitable (hey, it’s romance), as does his quick bonding with the three girls. The biggest obstacle is Conor’s determination not to love again — not only because he’s been hurt so badly, but because he genuinely doesn’t believe that he deserves happiness. Guhrke’s use of flashbacks to reveal Conor’s past and the reason for these feelings works really well; as a reader, I was committed to the idea of Olivia and Conor together, and only then did I come to understand his real reasons for resisting. Yet I always knew there was a reason, so I never felt the “wounded hero pity party” that has bothered me in many other romances.
I thought the story came together really well at the end. While some elements of the villainy plot felt overly familiar (cue melodrama bad guy come to steal our heroine’s land for the railroad!), there were twists I didn’t expect, so it stayed interesting. The resolution was no quick fix, either; I appreciated that, because it seemed respectful of the characters and the reader to give them time to work around to happiness.
The book isn’t perfect. The children had definite plot-moppet moments, and Conor’s occasional Irish dialect (“cup of tay”) was annoying. (I didn’t mind the occasional Gaelic word or phrase, but phonetic dialect coming and going can really bug me.) There was also an odd thread of religion running through the book that didn’t quite feel resolved for me. Conor is the answer to Olivia’s prayers, and she prays quite a bit in the book. Conor curses and insists that he has lost his faith, and I never got the feeling that he changed in that regard. But because Olivia loves him, it ceases to matter, seemingly, that they are fundamentally incompatible in terms of religion, which earlier scenes suggested is central to Olivia’s life and identity. (Not that this doesn’t happen in real life; it does, and it bugs me then, too.) But while I had some head-shaking moments over these minor issues, my overall experience of the book was quite good. I recommend it.
Edited to Add: Here are links to some other reviews published today. It’s the Conor’s Way bandwagon!
And of course, our Super Librarian Wendy’s review.
Edited again to add Lori’s tardy review at I Just Finished Reading.