Midnight Bayou by Nora Roberts
(Putnam, $25.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-399-14824-8
****
Murder, rape, jealousy, ghosts and reincarnation - these are the ingredients that Nora Roberts mixes together in this her latest hardcover release. As is almost always the case, this amazingly talented and prolific author has cooked up an entertaining and engrossing story from the mix.

At the center of Midnight Bayou is a house. Manet Hall has stood on a mysterious bayou outside of New Orleans since 1879. There lived the wealthy Manet family, the patriarch Henri, the matriarch Josephine, their twin sons Julian and Lucian, and Lucianís wife Abigail and daughter Marie Rose. Abby had been a maid in the household when Lucian had eloped with her. She knows her mother-in-law dislikes and despises her, but she loves her husband and infant child.

Abby does not like her nasty brother-in-law and her distrust is well-founded. One night while Lucian is away, Julian rapes and murders Abby. Josephine, determined to save her son and prevent the scandal, disposes of her body and informs Lucian that his wife has run away. Thus begins the evil that pervades Manet Hall.

Declan Fitzgerald is a wealthy Boston lawyer. While visiting his college friend Remy many years earlier, he had seen the now derelict house and had been strangely drawn to it. Unhappy with his life as a corporate lawyer, Dec discovers that the house is on the market and decides to buy it and restore it to its former grandeur. When he arrives late one night, he has the first of many strange experiences - he opens the door to a bedroom and sees not a dusty, empty room but a room full of furniture as it would have been a century earlier.

Despite this and the houseís reputation as being haunted, Dec feels strangely at home. When he walks into a bar in the French Quarter and sees its owner, Angelina Simone, he knows he has come home. Angelina has her own connections to Manet Hall. She grew up in the small shotgun house next door and she is the great, great granddaughter of Marie Rose who was disinherited and sent back to her motherís family to be raised.

Angelina - or Lena as she is known - has no intention of ever trusting herself to love. But Dec is unlike anyone she has ever known. He is witty and kind and sweet and determined and sexy and she canít use her usual distancing ploys to discourage him. And somehow, the two are connected to the strange forces that inhabit Manet Hall.

Dec is a simply marvelous hero. He has broken free of a life that was stifling him in Boston; he hated corporate law and wanted to work with his hands. He has found a way to do what he wants and - blame my fondness for HGTV - but I found Robertsí descriptions of his remodeling adventure fascinating. He is the perfect hero, not alpha, not beta but perfect.

Angelina is a bit more problematic, but Roberts succeeds in showing why she is the way she is. One can also understand why - even without their psychic connection - Dec is fascinated.

I am recommending Midnight Bayou even though it really isnít my kind of story. Phlegmatic and pragmatic, I am not much into ghosts and reincarnation and all that stuff. But if Roberts did not quite convince me that the spirits of the dead roam the earth looking for closure, she nevertheless kept me turning the pages. As always, her dialogue sparkled, her love scenes steamed up my glasses, and her secondary characters added humor and interest to her tale. She interwove the events of a century ago with the events of the present very successfully. One closes the book convinced that the ghosts of Manet Hall have finally been put to rest.

I remain amazed that Nora Roberts can produce so much and maintain such a high level of writing. I have been a bit disappointed in some of Roberts recent books like Carolina Moon but I was not disappointed in Midnight Bayou. Roberts knows how to entertain her readers.

--Jean Mason


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