Willow by Norah Hess
(Leisure, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8439-4373-4
**
The most frustrating thing about reading Norah Hess' Willow was that it kept giving me false hope. There were moments in the book that gave me sudden, intriguing insights into the characters, moments that led me to expect deep character development and the building of a solid, interesting relationship between the hero and heroine. I don't know what happened, but the promise of those moments was never fulfilled.

As the story opens, Willow Ames faces the hellish prospect of being forced by her abusive father into marrying the cruel and lascivious owner of a neighboring ranch. Her cowed, delicate mother vows to save her daughter from this terrible fate, and she secures Willow a position as a housekeeper to one Jules Asher. Jules owns a ranch near El Paso, miles away from Willow's New Mexico home.

I have to say that I liked Willow almost immediately. Years of mistreatment by her father have made her "tough in body and hard of mind." She's spunky, hardworking, and capable, and while she occasionally does foolish things, her naiveté is understandable in a young woman unfamiliar with the world outside her father's house. She's also strong-willed, so when she meets up with the arrogant Jules Asher, the two immediately lock horns.

And here I have to say that I disliked Jules almost immediately. He is portrayed as a lecherous, shallow man who is interested in women only as far as housekeeping, cooking, and sex are concerned. I was confused as to how this repugnant jerk would ever make a suitable hero for the heroine I'd begun to appreciate.

And then came one of those moments. When the ranch cook twists an ankle, Willow volunteers to accompany the men on a cattle drive to act as camp cook. Sparks fly between Willow and Jules as he continually ogles her rear end and pesters her with irritating sexual innuendoes. And then she says this:

"You're a womanizer. When you meet an attractive woman, all you think about is getting her in your bed. You aren't the least bit interested in what she's like, what goes on in her mind, whether she's happy or sad, what her dreams and fears are. And the sad thing is, you don't even care."

Wow! I stopped and caught my breath. Now this could be interesting, I thought. And looking back, I don't think it was unreasonable of me to expect that this kind of revelation would lead to character growth on Jules' part. It seemed clear – through Willow's influence, he slowly learns what it means to love a woman, what it means to build a strong, caring relationship. He recognizes the emptiness of his pubescent, hormonally-driven life and makes a conscious change. What a story!

Alas, it was not to be. Instead, Willow sleeps with him only days later, despite the fact that he's done nothing to prove her accusations wrong. As the cattle drive continues, Willow concocts rosy fantasies of married life with darling Jules, which will of course become reality once the cattle drive is over and Jules gets around to proposing.

Poor, naive Willow. How could she possibly know that Jules has no intention of marrying her? All her keen insight into his character has been blinded by sex... er, love. To be fair, it would have been almost impossible to predict Jules' commitment phobia, because it relies on the flimsiest plot device I've ever heard of.

And that plot device is? Jules doesn't want to get married. Period. Oh, he likes Willow, all right, and he likes sleeping with her, and in fact, he wants her with him for the rest of his life. He just plain won't marry her, because marriage "changes a man, ties him down, makes him old before his time." Oh, puh-leeeze.

This "conflict," such as it was, had two effects on me as a reader: 1) it made me despise Jules all the more for being even more of a selfish, childish, moronic jerk than I'd ever suspected; and 2) it convinced me that the author had precious little in her bag of conflict tricks to drag out the development of the romantic relationship in the story.

And after the relationship stalls out, it goes nowhere for a huge section of the book. Willow and Jules dance around playing petty games, each trying to make the other jealous, all the while lusting uncontrollably for each other. To say the least, this was not what I had hoped for.

There's more to the plot, including lots of ranch-type events and a couple of attempts by Willow's father to reclaim his daughter. But these happenings only serve to point out another problem with the book: despite the melodrama of the plot, the book itself contains very little tension, suspense, or excitement. Abductions, rescues, Indian raids, and shootouts come and go with jarring speed, described in a perfunctory manner and resolved so quickly (usually a matter of two or three pages) they're over almost before they begin.

So in the end, Willow is a story about two characters who don't really change or grow at all, and who hardly get to know each other in any way other than sexually. What a disappointment. This could have been a wonderful story. Instead, it ends up as a flat, unmoving tale with a disgusting, leering pig of a hero and a shallow, unsatisfying "happy" ending.

-- Ellen Hestand


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