The House at Briar Lake
by Roxanne Rustand
(Harl. Super. # 946, $4.50, PG) ISBN 0-373-70946-3
**
The House at Briar Lake suffers from a heroine who is never clearly defined. As a result, this reader was tired of her by the third chapter.

Michael Wells has finally decided to give up the rat race of Chicago and move his law practice to Briar Lake, Wisconsin. His beloved aunt has offered him the use of her lovely old home, and he has accepted with alacrity, only to find that Aunt Bertie is off on a vacation somewhere and a strange woman and kid are living in the house. Along with a whole menagerie of animals.

Lauren McClellan is hiding out at Briar Lake for the summer with her daughter Hannah. Lauren's ex-husband has committed a dastardly deed and left Lauren and Hannah flat, with the result that ten-year-old Hannah is sullen and withdrawn, and Lauren has lost her teaching job and her teaching license. Bertie's offer to take care of the house and animals for the summer seemed like a godsend, only nothing was mentioned of Michael.

So, when Michael arrives, he's greeted by a woman in a purple caftan, black tights, and orange tennis shoes (doesn't anyone wear t-shirts and jeans anymore?), not to mention assorted cats and dogs and birds and a pygmy goat named Daisy. This goat capers around through the story, getting loose and eating everything from the neighbor's prize roses to the leather upholstery of Michael's car, while Lauren vigorously defends it. The neighbor who just saw years of gardening work go down the, er, gullet? He's being mean to even suggest getting rid of Daisy! And Lauren knows she should have tied Daisy up, but golly, the darn goat gets loose no matter what she does! Readers, if you can withhold a snort of exasperation, you'll be doing better than I did.

Michael sees a chance to get Lauren nearer, so he suggests that she help him remodel the carriage house and he'll forget about the car damage. Lauren agrees and they begin spending lots of time together. Hannah starts coming out of her shell a bit. Then someone sets the carriage house on fire, and it seems that there's trouble afoot in Briar Lake.

This book was all over the map. Part kooky-lady-and-goat, part romance, part whodunit, part escaped-animal story, it felt unfocused and scattered, with the result that the romance suffered. I liked Michael; he was a decent guy, (and besides, he had no more use for the goat than I did), but the relationship he and Lauren try to build fell flat under the weight of all these other plot elements. Michael suspects Lauren is bilking Bertie out of her bank accounts. Lauren believes Michael will drop her the instant he finds out about her legal problems. Neither of them bother to sit down and talk, so the conflict dragged out and felt forced.

Lauren's character was just as scattered as the plot. She starts out as an indignant kook, all colored caftans and jangling bracelets and goofy animals. Then she segues into insecure mother, afraid that her daughter will never be happy again. Then she's unwillingly attracted to Michael, and then sure he'll dump her in a minute. I never got a grip on her core character. She and Michael eventually establish a relationship, but I was never sure just who he fell in love with. None of these personas seemed all that appealing.

The House at Briar Lake may appeal to those who love heroine-with-menagerie stories, but I found it to be a disappointment.

--Cathy Sova


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