In view of the recent on-line discussions regarding adultery that The Romance Reader and its faithful fans have participated in, I feel an obligation to warn you right up front that this is an adultery book. Based on the mail TRR has received on the subject of adultery in romances, I know there are a great deal of readers who have no desire to read anything involving adultery. Consider yourselves warned.
For those readers who don't care one way or the other, I'll give it to you straight – Heaven Forbids loses something once the hero and heroine begin their affair. Up until that point, the Scottish historical featured a fairly high degree of sexual tension, helped along no doubt by the whole "will they or won't they" scenario. But once that question is answered, the sexual tension goes down the tubes. And it takes a lot of the character sympathy along with it.
For the first half of the book I was more than willing to sympathize with the circumstances in which the hero and heroine found themselves. Kathryn Siddows is a widow with a young child who is sent off to the Highlands to tend to her niece, the new bride of Hugh McDonald, the Laird of Nenverness. Immediately upon meeting, Hugh and Kathryn realize that they are meant for one another. Kathryn is hardworking, industrious and smart. Hugh is inquisitive, a closet scientist dedicated to his clan and to keeping peace in the Highlands. Kathryn's niece Sarah, by contrast, is a quiet, completely pampered beauty without much to offer outside the ladies solar. Still, Sarah and Hugh are wed, and he fulfills his marital obligations in an effort to beget an heir.
The sparks between Hugh and Kathryn are so hot that just about everyone in Nenverness senses the chemistry between the two. Naturally they can only hold off so long. They attempt to keep their affair a secret, but slowly the Clan becomes aware of the situation. It is Hugh who finally calls a halt to their meetings, convinced he would not be able to bear seeing Kathryn labeled a whore. In this, Hugh acts unselfishly.
The heat between Kathryn and Hugh is palpable (there's an "interesting" scene involving an 18th century test tube) and the two really have a hard time keeping their hands off each other. Kathryn has no problem with this. Her first husband was abusive and so she never enjoyed sex with him. She enjoys it with Hugh, and feels not the least bit guilty over sleeping with her niece's husband. That bothered me. Because, despite the author's attempts to justify Kathryn's actions (her past, her needs, her feelings for Hugh), she basically struck me as a very selfish woman. Her guilt only follows a tragedy that nearly claims the life of her young son. And then, rather than face her mistakes, she flees, taking her son with her and subjecting him to a life harder than the one they had endured under an abusive husband/father.
There were elements of Heaven Forbids that I enjoyed – I found the background descriptions of life as a camp follower interesting and informative. Author Ranney's style is intelligent, though at times convoluted. More than once I found turning back and re-reading passages because I couldn't figure out who was speaking.
And while there were moments towards the beginning of the book where I felt quite moved by the intense feelings Hugh and Kathryn share, ultimately their actions struck me as somewhat heartless. I guess, after all, maybe I'm one of those readers that just doesn't "do" adultery, no matter what the era.