Courting Sarah
by Deborah Lawrence
(Jove Friends, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-515-12480-X
***
Courting Sarah begins with a potentially engaging premise that gets lost midway through in a welter of sub-plots.

Sarah Hampton, recently widowed after 12 years of marriage, has traveled west to join her childhood best friend, Phoebe Abbott, in Gridley, Oregon. Phoebe's husband, Charles, edits the little logging community's paper, and Sarah pays for her bed and board with the Abbotts by writing for the Gridley Gazette.

The year is 1873, and Sarah has been infected by the beliefs of Victoria Woodhull and the National Radical Reformers, a group advocating such revolutionary ideas as the vote for women and free love. Her weekly column explaining Mrs. Woodhull's beliefs outrages Charles…as well as most of the other men in the pioneering community…but he continues to publish them.

One of men who reads Sarah's column is Gil Perry, the part-time bartender at The Wedge saloon. At 29, Gil is not only a "beer jerker" -- Sarah's description -- but also the owner of the local logging operation. Gil is attracted to Sarah, but the feeling is hardly mutual.

Sarah finds Gil's job at the saloon objectionable: her first husband was a charming drunk. She is uninterested in remarrying and certainly not to a beer-jerker. Consequently, when Gil sweeps dirty sawdust out of the saloon and right on to Sarah's newly ironed skirts, Sarah's poor opinion of Gil is confirmed.

She flounces indignantly back to the office of the Gazette and complains about Gil's behavior to Charles Abbott. Charles persuades Sarah to write an etiquette column -- radically different from the columns she writes in her own persona -- under the sobriquet, Miss Lucy.

Miss Lucy's column is met with approval by the citizens of Gridley who agree that Miss Lucy must be a matron who has "raised at least two fine sons and probably a few daughters." Only Gil Perry guesses Miss Lucy's identity, and he decides to have a little fun based on his insight. He writes to Miss Lucy, using a pseudonym, and comments on her column. He includes a quote from Shakespeare in his brief letter and -- to make identifying him more difficult -- mails it from a nearby town

Sarah and Phoebe are charmed. Not many residents of Gridley, Oregon, quote Shakespeare. They christen "Mr. Brown" the Poet, and Sarah mentions his letter in Miss Lucy's second column. Gil responds again, at greater length and more provocatively, asking Miss Lucy if she shares her opinions with her fellow columnist, Mrs. Hampton.

From this promising start, the plot thickens nicely. So far, so good. Had Lawrence allowed the story to progress to its natural conclusion at this point, the result would have been an enjoyable romance between two likeable individuals. The narrative would still have had one large flaw. The act of Sarah's that precipitates a major plot crisis was uncharacteristically foolish and reckless; nothing in the way Lawrence had portrayed Sarah up to that point lead me to expect such behavior from her. I could, however, have discounted that annoying feature in favor of the romantic developments it precipitated.

Unfortunately, approximately two-thirds of the way through the book, Lawrence widens her focus from Gil and Sarah's romance to include sub-plots on the vote for women, arson at Gil's logging camp, and Phoebe and Charles' marriage. All the romantic tension Lawrence has built up is dissipated when our attention is directed to these sub-plots which I found neither particularly interesting nor pertinent to the primary story.

When I read a book, I try to read it the way the author expected it would be read: by beginning at the beginning and reading to the end. Reading the ending first or hopscotching through the text is cheating. However, in the case of Courting Sarah, I would recommend reading straight through the first 190 pages, then skipping lightly through the next 115 pages just to see how the romance comes out. Read that way, you may well enjoy this book.

--Nancy J. Silberstein


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