Fall From Grace by Megan Chance
(Harper, $5.99, PG), ISBN 0-06-108489-1
**

My major reaction after finishing Fall From Grace was, what a waste of talent. Megan Chance writes beautifully and delves deep into the emotions and motivations of her characters. Too bad the characters were so dislikable. After reading the back cover, I thought Fall From Grace was going to be my cup of tea -- a redemption novel. However, the salvation of the outlaw hero and heroine was too little, too late. I just couldnít see past their violent past to be happy for them. I could understand why they had become outlaws, but I still didnít like them. This dark novel certainly doesnít get my vote for the "feel-good novel of 1997."

Lily Tremaine was only 12 years old when her parents were murdered by a member of the notorious Sharpe gang. Instead of killing Lily too, Hank Sharpe decided to bring her into the gang and make her an outlaw. Twelve years later, Lily finally took revenge on her adoptive "family." She betrayed them as they attempted another crime and ran away to begin a new life. But Texas Sharpe, Hankís son, and Lilyís husband, tracked Lily down. The novel opens as he finds her.

At first Lily proclaims her innocence and pretends she is overjoyed to see Texas, but as they begin their trek toward home she tries to shoot him in his sleep. Now the jig is up, and Texas knows the truth. He must bring her back to Hank, whom he knows will kill her for betraying the gang.

At this point, about 40 pages into the novel, I really didnít care what happened to either character. The book was so depressing and dark that I wasnít sure I would finish it. The heroine has already tried to kill the hero and told him in no uncertain terms that she wishes she had succeeded. Where could this possibly go that I would want to follow? But I did trudge onward, mainly because of Megan Chanceís taut, compelling writing.

Texas and Lily arrive at the home of Texasí half sister, Josie, who has been brought up as a lady by her mother, with little exposure to her outlaw father Hank. In her innocence she believes that the outlaws are heroes who are taking revenge on the evil Yankee carpetbaggers to save the pride of the post-confederate South. Josie is immediately fascinated by Lily, and she envies the adventurous life Lily has led. Josieís involvement in their lives will force Texas and Lily to reevaluate their relationship. This amazingly naÔve woman manages to bring the best out in each of them, even as she comes to understand that there is nothing noble about the outlaw life.

Texas is devastated by Lilyís betrayal, and he realizes that she never really loved him. Yet he canít help protecting her from the full wrath of his father. Lily realizes that despite her 12-year dream to escape the outlaw life, Texas has come to mean something to her, and she canít easily walk away. Both of them benefit from Josieís good-natured enthusiasm and optimism, and they both start to have a faint glimmer of hope that there is life for them outside of the outlaw world.

Megan Chance is a hell of a writer to compel me to finish the novel. I found myself horrified that I even started to care about these characters. Okay, Lily has had to make some tough choices to survive in life, but the fact is that she has spent many years as an outlaw, robbing banks and killing people. Just as I was starting to like her, when she begins to act selflessly to protect Josie, she takes part in a failed train robbery, and kills again to save Josieís life. Texas was harder to accept; he willingly chose the outlaw life, and participated in years of murder and mayhem. I know I was supposed to believe that Lily and Texas were trapped in this livelihood, and that life had given them few breaks, but all I could think was, these people are cold-blooded murderers. I certainly didnít consider them romantic. All I could feel was a vague depression that they lived this way.

There is some glimmer of hope at the bookís close. Texas makes an unselfish choice that lets Lily recapture her dreams, and Lily acts nobly in Josieís defense. But even as Lily and Texas are reunited, their new dream is to "rustle up" some cattle and start their own ranch. Isnít that stealing we are talking about?

As I said, this is an extremely well-written book. Chance gets into these characters heads and really lets the reader feel the vulnerability that they have spent years hiding. Her descriptive powers are admirable, even if she is mostly portraying dusty, dirty Texas towns and saloons. I truly hope she chooses a better set of characters for her next novel. These ones were not worth her effort. I have a feeling this book may, in some circles, be considered a daring example of "stretching the romance genre." Call me a self- righteous prig, but I donít think the romance genre needs to take this path.

--Susan Scribner


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