When a book has you entranced one minute and spitting mad the next, it probably safe to say that the word "uneven" is a bit too convenient. It's more than just the pace or the plot. In the case of Love's Legacy, it reads as if the author didn't know what she wanted the book to be. It begins as a benign, pleasant, even lighthearted story. But about half way through, the tale begins to spiral into much darker territory, and in so doing, creates a number of conflicting images which, ultimately, made me lose interest in the events and emotions of the people involved.
Love's Legacy centers on the relationship that slowly (and I do mean slowly) builds between Loralee Vander and Jesse Sinclair, residents of Hazelton, Pennsylvania, circa 1889. Loralee is the daughter of one of the richest men in town, but is studying to be a doctor. Jesse first sees her in the home of his friend and employee, caring for the Irishman's sick daughter. All the hormones in the world go flying around between these two and pretty soon they're bumping into each other at parties and making out under trees. It's all very fun and exciting…until Jesse learns Loralee's last name.
It seems old man Vander, a truly nasty character if ever there was one, was responsible for the death of Jesse's natural father and a 100 or so others in a mining disaster twenty years before. After Jesse's mom died on the heels of his father's death, he and his brother John had the good fortune to be adopted by the Sinclairs. But his sisters disappeared, and Jesse has never been able to unleash the anger he holds towards the man whose greed caused the death of so many.
He takes out his anger on Loralee by refusing to have anything to do with her.
Loralee is crushed, but she's got other problems to deal with as well. Her cruel and domineering father (the same father who for reasons unknown allowed her to attend college and pursue a medical career) had surreptitiously gotten her engaged to the town's resident psychopath Charles Korwin.
Loralee calls Charles "mean" the first time he tries to rape her. The word is ridiculously understated and it marked the beginning of those conflicting images mentioned in the first paragraph. As the story moves further along, it becomes more and more apparent that for a woman studying to become a doctor, Loralee is dangerously ill equipped to deal with medical realities of sex. Since the virginal miss can barely bring herself to say the word "sex," you begin to wonder how she could ever possibly do something as basic and vulgar as delivering a baby.
Loralee parades around striking independent poses, but retreats immediately into the helpless woman façade the minute any male raises his voice. Granted, her father and fiancé act more like brutal beasts than men. But to lump Jesse into the same category and assume that "passion is bad" because it turns men into animals is just plain silly coming from the lips of a so-called medical professional. Throughout the course of the book, Loralee goes from snappy to simpering with nary a fight.
Jesse fares somewhat better, although his own emotions often change with the wind, which added little to the proceedings except an increase in the number of chapters.
The Pennsylvania setting is nicely sketched by the author, who seems to have done her homework as far as coal mining was concerned, but missed a few details in the process. I doubt highly that the oft repeated "Hey" was the greeting of choice between young men and women of quality during the later half of the 19th century. And though the size of the town is never mentioned, one can imagine that the society of Hazelton could not have been so huge that a well-placed young man like Jesse wouldn't recognize Loralee's unique name and question her parentage from the get go. On a more obscure note, the author makes reference to Irish coffee, a drink which (and this is fairly well documented) wasn't concocted until somewhere in the 1930s.
Love's Legacy isn't as exceedingly bleak as some tales, but it is certainly no uplifting ode to love. It's unfortunate. The book's early chapters are actually quite charming and spirited, revealing lighthearted characters who are unwillingly pushed into darker waters. It's a position these two shouldn't have been put in.