The Particulars: Historical romance, Harper Monogram, 1996, out of print and going for exorbitant prices used (in paper) - but oh happy day! It's now available in digital and the author is currently offering it to readers for the ridiculously awesome price of 99 cents. (ETA 2/19/12: Looks like the 99 cent price offer is now kaput).
Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: Breathless by Laura Lee Guhrke is (to date) my favorite romance novel of all time. Period. After I read that book and loved it, I set about finding her backlist. At the time finding that backlist required nothing short of offering up one of my organs on the black market (I'm kidding, but seriously - it took me a hella long time). When KristieJ found out I had this book, and it had been languishing in my TBR for years - she started
The Review: For those of you who know nothing about KristieJ - let me give you a quick lesson. Kristie is a very hero-centric romance reader. She also is a complete, unrepentant sucker for wounded heroes. The more screwed up they are, the more she loves them. Conor's Way is textbook KristieJ cat nip. Conor Branigan is about as tortured as they come, and wouldn't you know it? He's Irish. It's a shock I was able to resist this book for so long.
Since coming to America, Conor has been making a living as a boxer. It allows him to keep moving, gives him a certain measure of freedom, and glory be - he's actually pretty good at it. However his luck runs out one night in a backwater Louisiana town. He's asked to take the fall when the numbers come in and it's discovered the promoter will lose money if Conor wins. Being...well, Irish - Conor doesn't take the fall and gets the snot kicked out of him by hired goons for his insolence.
Olivia Maitland is desperate to save her family farm. Her mother dead, her brothers taken by Gettysburg, and her drunken father finally succumbing thanks to a fall from a ladder, it's all she and her three adopted daughters have left. She's been advertising for a farm hand, but has had no luck since all she has to offer is room and board. She needs to bring in her peach crop if she has any hope of staying afloat. The problem is she can't do it all by herself, and the villain of the story is pressuring her to sell. He wants to build a railroad, and her orchard is inconveniently in the way. But Olivia cannot bear the thought. So she prays to God to send her a man. What she gets? A beaten-nearly-to-death Conor Branigan lying in the middle of a country road. She probably should have been more specific with God.....
This is one of those books where it's All About The Hero. Conor is, simply, one of the more memorable heroes I've read about in a long time. Also, I'll be honest - I was pretty much sunk the moment Guhrke starts giving us the back-story. The minute the "Irish stuff" started creeping in - Conor surviving the famine (barely), his Fenian ties, his stint in prison - I was sunk. Blame it on the four years I spent as an impressionable college undergrad slogging my way through the "high points" of British/Irish relations in the 19th century. This was good stuff. Really compelling, and it didn't hurt that Guhrke did her research.
The fly in the ointment besides Conor's desire for "freedom," his haunted past, and his belief that he's "no good," is the villain. The man who wants Olivia's land? Yeah, the very boxing promoter that Conor ticked off. And now Conor is sitting on the land that he's been trying to push Olivia off of for four years. Why has it taken so long? Well, she keeps saying no, and their shared past together has had him hesitant (until now) to up the ante.
It's hard for me to convey in words how great I thought this story was. Sometimes with wounded heroes I can lose patience as a reader. I want to smack them upside the head and holler, "Oh get over it already!" But it's hard to do that with Conor. Probably because I know the history. Also the author gives you just enough horrifying detail to make your skin crawl (also to want to punch the next English Duke in the face that wanders into Romancelandia). Olivia is a nice enough girl, but she doesn't really fully step up to the plate for me until the second half. There's nothing ever "wrong" with her, just that being in Conor's orbit can be a tough act to follow. The three orphan girls that live with Olivia? Add just enough to the story to keep pricking at Conor's conscience, and slowly transform him into a man that finally has to admit he truly does give a damn.
This is a post Civil War story (1871) set in a the Deep South, and I know some readers who will not touch these with a 50 foot pole. Guhrke avoids a huge discussion on slavery and the southern "way of life" - but details it just enough to explore Olivia's character. How she feels isolated, alone, and, to a certain extent, cheated. It also exposes the lies and myths she was raised on. The moment the slaves leave she knows - the white grown-ups were wrong. Blacks weren't slaves because they "liked" it.
The way this book ends is very interesting. There is a bit of grand-standing, a few fireworks, but it's never overblown. And pushing the buttons behind the curtain? Let's just say this story has it's own Wizard of Oz. It's really clever, with subtle manipulations and games being played backstage.
There's a lot to like here. It's not my favorite of Guhrke's early work (nothing can replace Breathless, and To Dream Again is nearly as splendid), but that's sort of like saying chocolate ice cream is somehow inferior to chocolate cake. Heck, we're still talking chocolate! I'm glad I finally read this. I'm glad Kristie is relentless and kept after me every single year I would see her at RWA ("Have you read Conor's Way yet Wendy?" "Uh, no." "Wendy, Wendy, Wendy!"). I didn't want to put it down. I started to resent the fact that I have to work for a living (damn Greek tycoons, I'm certainly as good as any of those Harlequin Presents heroines!) and couldn't devote a large block of time to doing nothing but inhaling this story. It's lovely and I want to read it all over again.
Final Grade = A
Sidenote: And lest you think poor KristieJ is done