The Thorn Birds on audiobook. 18 CDs of epic Australian saga centered around an illicit affair between an older priest and a younger woman. So what book do I pluck from the depths of my Kindle after finishing that? Forbidden by Charlotte Stein, of course! Another romance about a priest (well, sort of) and an exorcism (of all things). Dude. That's so kooky for a romance novel, how could I not want to read it? Plus I tend to love Stein's work and the last book in this sorta-kinda series flipped a major switch for me back in December.
Forbidden tells the story of Dorothy (Dot) who has been a prisoner to her mother's delusions for the past 20 years. Dot is a "bad girl," evil, possessed, which leads her mother to tying her to a bed and summoning the help of the Church. Dot is prepared to come face-to-face with a priest who will likely pat her mother on the head and condone all her superstitious nonsense. Instead it is Killian who comes to her rescue.
Killian is almost done with seminary and is very close to taking his vows. He convinces his old mentor/teacher to let him inquire about Dot. Naturally when he arrives at her mother's house he is horrified and rescues the girl. Then he decides he will take her back to Boston, to a home for girls run by the Church, so she can acclimate to having a life outside of horrifying abuse. The fly in the ointment? Killian and Dot are powerfully attracted to each other. The naive sheltered young woman and the almost priest.
This story could have been a disaster, and yet somehow Stein makes it work. It helps that Killian is kind, decent and one gets the impression he chose the priesthood out of his desire to help people. An attraction to Dot is a complication for him, but not one he brushes aside to hide behind the priesthood. What I really liked here is that once he develops feelings for her, recognizes them as more than just a passing attraction, taking his vows are immediately reconsidered. And post-Thorn Birds? Let me tell you how refreshing that was!
Reading about Dot is almost like reading about an adolescent. I liked that she wasn't a eunuch and didn't think of her attraction to Killian as "dirty" or "shameful." However she's just spent her entire life with a woman who preached nothing but evil and possession - so Dot learning that having sexual feelings will not automatically lead to punishment or condemnation is very new to her.
The sticking point for me in stories with these sorts of themes is that I get squirked out by the hero being attracted to the naive heroine. Like he's "turned on" by the fact that he has to teach her about a lot of things - not just sex. Stein completely avoided this pitfall. Killian struggles with the attraction because he fears Dot is projecting her feelings on the man who "rescued" her. Would Dot still be attracted to him if he hadn't of saved her from her mother? Likewise, while Dot is somewhat of an innocent, I never felt like she was child-like in her behavior. She's more of a dried sponge, thirsty for knowledge and soaking up every scrap that comes her way.
Stein has a very unique voice and her narrative style is very stream of consciousness. That style is reined in considerably in this novella. I would say it's probably the most restrained thing I've ever read by her (although I'm still working through her backlist). That said, it's very heavy on internal monologues and I would have loved more dialogue. Even factoring in my giant dialogue-ho tendencies, this novella was really light in the pants on that score. I wanted more.
This one didn't have the same gut-punch effect as the first novella in the series had on me, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit. I liked how the author handled the religious elements, and skated around my usual reservations with naive, innocent heroines in contemporary romances. Stein rarely disappoints (if ever!) for me and I'm looking forward to the final novella in this trilogy.
Final Grade = B