Montana Secrets by Kay Stockham
(Harl. Super. #1307, $5.50, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-71307-X
***
Grace Korbit left her Montana hometown ten years ago, running as much from reminders of an abused childhood as from Seth Rowland's romantic overtures. Now, a seasoned physiotherapist, she returns when his brother convinces her that he needs her. After a riding accident, the widowed Seth lost the use of his legs and gained a very bad attitude. Retreating to the security of his bedroom, he has given up all hopes of returning to his former life as manager of the family ranch. His temper tantrums have already chased off six physiotherapists and almost alienated his much-too-patient family. He isn't about to make any exception for his new physiotherapist, especially after she made her feelings very clear all those years ago.

Despite their past - or perhaps because of it - Grace won't put up with Seth's self-pity and pretty much bullies him into undertaking therapy. Her unorthodox techniques work, and soon enough he begins to accept his life is not over. As he tries to understand Grace, he realizes she has her own healing to do. Her emotional scars may be less visible than his physical ones, but no easier to cure. Despite many counseling sessions, she has never completely divulged her childhood traumas and consequently has not managed to work past them. Just as her patience and determination force Seth out of his slump, his kindness and understanding break through her protective shell. Slowly, she opens up to him and to the possibility of forging a life together.

I appreciated Stockham's careful and tactful handling of the difficult subjects of child abuse and rape. She shows rather than explains the long-reaching consequences of childhood trauma and thereby draws the reader into the characters' world and emotions. Deftly weaving their backstories into the narrative of recent events, she rarely overburdens the reader with information and instead generates a well-paced story. Most importantly, she does not rush through the many difficult steps in the healing process. Although Grace and Seth have their happy-ever-after, Stockham recognizes that there are no simply answers and that some scars never completely disappear.

In other ways, however, Montana Secrets is much too formulaic, especially where its large cast of secondary characters is concerned. Despite the none-too-quaint lisp and childish stamping, the predictably oh-so-cute kid is little more than a foil to bring the lovers together and to set off a foreseen catastrophe near the end. Seth's brother and sister-in-law are supportive but bland, while Seth's dead wife has the unnecessary part of the Other Woman: surely Grace and Seth have enough conflicts to resolve without her adding a hysterical twist. And although Stockham may want to drive home a point about overcoming fear of the past, she does not need to do it in the person of a farm hand whose role in the climax is made clear from the first time he appears, casting lustful eyes on Grace. Such cardboard villains and their dastardly deeds steer the story towards high melodrama and ultimately diminish the impact of Grace's emotional development.

But my main objection to Montana Secrets lies in its frequent references to God and his mysterious ways. Expressions of faith have their place in inspirationals, but Montana Secrets is not billed as one, and the sex scenes that are clearly part of Grace's healing process would militate against such a label. Yet, as someone who is as strongly committed to the right to religious worship (including the right to not believe and worship) as to the right to choose what I read (and all the more so if I pay for it), I was annoyed to have someone's religious viewpoint thrown at me in the guise of romance. After all, if that's what I want, I know where to look for it. Isn't that why books are classified by genre and sub-genre, category and line?

--Mary Benn


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