Sanctuary by Nora Roberts
Putnam, $23.95, R, ISBN: 0-399-14240-1
****
Nora Roberts' many fans have been anxiously awaiting the publication of her newest romantic suspense novel, Sanctuary. I believe that they will be satisfied with her new offering. After all, a merely good Nora Roberts' book is usually better than the best of many other authors. This is a good, not a great, book.

The premise of Sanctuary is familiar: a young woman threatened by an unseen, obsessed stalker. But Roberts enriches this conventional plot device by integrating a past family tragedy into the story and describing the impact of the sins of the fathers on the next generation. The result is a compelling story with believable characters who are struggling to escape the trammels of the past.

Jo Ellen Hathaway is, at the age of twenty-seven, a photographer with a growing national reputation. She left her family home, Sanctuary, on the Georgia barrier island of Little Desire, at the age of eighteen to make her way in the world. She left behind a family which had never recovered from the mother's desertion twenty years earlier. Her father Sam; her brother, Brian; and her sister, Alexa were all, as was Jo Ellen, devastated by Anabelle's abandonment. Jo Ellen, who looks just like her mother, has found it particularly difficult to adjust to the sense of betrayal she feels.

But someone is watching Jo Ellen. She begins receiving photos in the mail, photos that chronicle her daily actions. Then, one morning, she receives a different kind of picture, a picture not of her but of her mother as a naked corpse. Already on edge, Jo Ellen collapses and is hospitalized. When she returns to her apartment, the photo is missing and Jo Ellen begins to fear that it was nothing but a figment of her imagination. In desperation, she flees home to Sanctuary.

Shortly after Jo Ellen comes home, Nathan Delaney arrives on Desire for a six-month stay. Nathan and his family had spent the summer there twenty years earlier, when Annabelle had disappeared. Now, Nathan's parents and brother are dead, and long kept secrets have brought this successful New York architect back to Desire and to Jo Ellen.

The evil that Jo Ellen sought to escape has followed her to Sanctuary but the nature of that evil remains unclear throughout most of the book. Facing an unseen threat, the family begins to come together and each of the three children begins to move towards accepting love. But then the truth is revealed and the horrors of the past become all too present.

Roberts does her usual fine job of creating and sustaining an atmosphere of menace. Likewise, her treatment of the romantic relationships between Jo Ellen and Nathan, Brian and the local doctor, Kirby, and Lexy and her childhood friend Griff are all handled with her usual skill. The characters are deftly drawn and their development in the face of this unknown threat is completely believable. As usual, her dialogue sparkles and her love scenes are torrid.

Why, then, is this not a great book, not a keeper? I believe the answer lies in multiplicity of characters and relationships. There are Nathan and Jo Ellen, Brian and Kirby, Lexy and Griff, and even Sam and Cousin Kate. Because Roberts is trying to do so much, none of the romantic relationships is as well and clearly drawn as we have come to expect in a Roberts' novel. In this, Sanctuary resembles Montana Sky.

Yet, when all is said and done, this is a really good book and fans of Nora Roberts and of good romantic suspense will not be disappointed. As I said earlier, a good Nora Roberts is better than most other romances and Sanctuary is no exception.

--Jean Mason


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