Beloved Protector

Promised to a Stranger

Ballyrourke by Linda O’Brien
(Jove, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-515-13409-0
I knew I was in trouble when I realized that every descriptive phrase I thought of while reading this book were oxymorons: amazingly dull, incredibly dull, extraordinarily dull. Unhappily, the one word each phrase has in common describes the experience best.

Colin MacCormack thinks of Ballyrourke as his, since the Rourkes have lived on the land for centuries. They were reduced to mere tenants, however, in the seventeenth century when all the Irish landowners who would not swear allegiance to the English crown were stripped of their estates. “Colin’s gut roiled each time he thought of the terrible injustice of it.”

In 1893, the land now belongs to the Lawthrops. Following the deaths of Sir Lionel and, more recently, his wife, the search is on for the heir named in Lady Lawthrop’s will - her niece, Katherine, living in America. The clan would certainly prefer the land not fall into the hands of Lawthrop’s vicious son, Horace. But a rumor has surfaced that Lady Lawthrop wrote yet another will, one that would give Ballyrourke back to the O’Rourke clan.

Katherine Rourke is astonished that she has family living in Ireland - her embittered mother (a Lawthrop) told her that they were English and that all her relations were dead. When she arrives in Ireland to inspect her inheritance she is thrilled to find a substantial property - selling it will allow her to open the orphanage in Boston that is her dream. She is also confused by the conflicting stories she hears about her parents. The father she always resented for abandoning them was apparently a hero to the O’Rourke clan. He died returning to his home in an attempt to help his family fight Horace’s abuses of the tenants.

Naturally the O’Rourkes are on tenterhooks to see who will actually inherit Ballyrourke. Well, Colin is on tenterhooks. No one else seems all that interested. Even the maid, Mary, who supposedly witnessed the new will is so unexcited about this improvement in the family fortunes that she leaves town without doing more than mentioning it on her way out the door.

As a result, the main action of the book consists of Colin telling us about how he’s trying to locate Mary so she can tell him where the new will is. Oh yes, and wander around in frustrated lust for Katherine, a hated Lawthrop he believes is a stuck-up rich girl with no loyalty to her clan. This is a frustrating and illogical contradiction that pervades the book. He insists constantly that she’s all Lawthrop, in spite of the fact that she’s also the daughter of the O’Rourke man he idolized, then berates her for not caring about what happens to the O’Rourkes.

Nothing much else happens. Katherine roams the countryside, looking for people who will tell her the truth behind her parents’ elopement and subsequent estrangement from their families, but everyone is reluctant to speak. She drags tiny details out of them at an agonizingly slow pace that defeats any attempt by the reader to develop the slightest interest in the story.

Neither hero nor heroine is developed past a two-dimensional stereotype. Particularly frustrating, Colin pays little attention to Katherine beyond the fact that she turns him on. His treatment of her is cavalier and contemptuous (interesting strategy to gain the support of a woman who holds his future in her hands). His anger is apparently based mostly on the fact that she wears gloves (how shallow!) and that she isn’t anxious to sacrifice her own dreams for those of an overbearing stranger.

Given all that, why do they fall in love? Beats me.

The writing style is equally tedious. The author informs us that Katherine “was inches away from letting loose with a torrent of anger,” and that her “eyes fairly gamboled with vivacity” (I’m still trying to form a mental picture of “gamboling” eyes). It’s good the author tells us this stuff, though, because it’s the only way we know she’s feeling anything. In other words, lots of exposition but not a lot of action.

I can’t recommend a visit to Ballyrourke for the romance or the story - but by all means go if you’re having trouble falling asleep.

­--Judi McKee

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