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The Wish Club by Stella Cameron
(Warner, $6.50, R) ISBN 0-446-60431-3
Stella Cameron gets back to romance basics in The Wish Club and it works well for her and for her readers. There's an honest, fresh quality to this story that I found missing from the author's last couple of books. Although the plot of this book is simple and familiar, two people from very different backgrounds fall in love, the story line is insightful and the character development of the hero is very good. The Wish Club includes what has come to be obligatory in books by Cameron some kinky sex between the villains, but not much. The author has a good story and doesn't need the filler.

Because of the kindness of a good man, ten-year-old Max and his sister were rescued from the streets of London. Straun Rossmara, Viscount Hunsingore, not only rescued the two illegitimate and unwanted children, he adopted them and gave them his name. Max Rossmara grew up adoring his father, his family and the daughter of a tenant farmer on his uncle's estate in Scotland, Kristy Mercer.

As children, Max and Kristy spend a good deal of time together on his uncle's estate, Kirkcaldy. Max shares his education with Kristy, teaching her what he learns as he learns it. As they grow older, Max and Kristy's feelings deepen into a sweet and very innocent love. Their parents, however, are fearful of what could happen; they do not believe that any good can come of the relationship. Max has been raised as a gentleman and he is expected to marry within his class, as Kristy is expected to marry within hers.

Max is sent to Yorkshire to learn about farming so that he can eventually take over the running of Kirkcaldy for his uncle. Before he leaves, Max bids Kristy a painful good-bye and both make a wish to be together forever. Years go by and when Max returns to run Kirkcaldy, in 1842, he is not the same gentle young man who left. Max is man who frequently loses his temper and drinks to escape his unhappiness. He is miserable because he cannot have Kristy and because his father has informed him that he wants Max to marry the daughter of a countess, Lady Hermoine.

Straun Rossmara loves his son and he wants to solidify Max's position in society. Straun believes that, despite Max's illegitimate birth, society will fully accept Max after he marries Lady Hermoine. Torn between his love for his father and his love for Kristy, Max becomes more miserable and more desperate. He comes up with a plan to have Kristy in his life; Max offers her a position as his assistant. He knows that females are never given these types of jobs but Max also knows how smart Kristy is, and he believes she would do a wonderful job of helping him run Kirkcaldy.

Kristy agrees and is excited about the prospect of the work, however, both Kristy's father and her brother believe that Max's offer is anything but honorable. When Kristy's father forbids her to take the position, she defies him and goes to live at Kirkcaldy with Max. Kristy believes that her loving father and mother will come around and see her point of view, but they do not. Kristy's parents tell her that since she has chosen this path against their wishes, she is no longer their daughter and she is not welcome in their home. Kristy has no one to turn to but Max, and she knows he is engaged Lady Hermoine.

I thought after Beloved that I would be happy never to hear from the Rossmara family again, but The Wish Club proved me wrong. Ms. Cameron really explores her characters in this book, particularly her hero. The author walks a fine line with Max. If she hadn't allowed readers to see how much Max suffers over the thought of disappointing the father he loves, or hurting the woman her loves, it might have been hard to forgive Max for hesitating to give Kristy her due when she chooses him over her family.

Despite my enjoyment of this tale, I had a few problems with the story line. I thought Max, at 30, was too old to be so passive about having his father run his life. And, although I enjoyed the ending, I thought that Max's drinking problem was too easily dismissed. Max believes that with Kristy at his side he will no longer have the "urge" to drink. Alcoholism is a terrible disease that ruins lives. Love may be able to move mountains but it cannot cure a disease like this and I feel it's a disservice to women, especially to the very young women who read romances, to allow them to think otherwise.

Notwithstanding the drinking issue, I enjoyed the honest and realistic approach to the consequences of a romance between a man whose family owns the land and a woman whose family has always served others. The root of this romance, and its conflict, is family. It's refreshing to read about a hero and heroine who have real problems; problems created by the time they live in and the circumstance of their birth. The author allows readers to understand Max's predicament. If he marries Kristy, society's doors will be closed to him and although Max doesn't care for himself he knows how much it would hurt his family to see him excluded.

The drama in The Wish Club is insightful, includes genuine conflict and it worked for me; this book kept me up two hours past my bedtime. Having read Cameron's previous books on the Rossmara family, I did have some additional insights into this story, but not much. I do, however, think readers unfamiliar with the series should read the author's special note at the back of the book before beginning this tale. The special note does not give away the story line, and it provides readers with some additional background information concerning the characters in The Wish Club.

--Judith Flavell

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