Taming the Heiress
I was looking forward to this book, since Susan King has gotten such good reviews from us in the past. While Taming the Heiress is very well-written and contains interesting elements, I found it difficult to warm up to its heroine.
Although it is 1850 and the modern era is in full swing, legend and myth reign on the tiny Inner Hebrides island of Caransay. The island’s inhabitants send a local maiden, Margaret MacNeill, out to the storm-swept rock known as Sgeir Caran. According to legend, a mighty kelpie might come to the rock to claim a human bride, and if he does, the island will have good fortune. When a naked man is swept up on that rock, Meg believes he’s the kelpie. Shipwrecked and slightly drunk, Dougal Stewart thinks the beautiful, barefoot maid on the rock is a sea fairy. The two share a passionate interlude. But as she leaves, Meg sees men in a rowboat come to rescue Dougal, and she realizes her lover is not a kelpie but a human man. She assumes that he somehow knew about the tradition of maidens waiting for the kelpie, and that he deliberately masqueraded as the kelpie in order to get some anonymous sex.
Seven years later, and Meg is now richer than the Queen. Almost immediately after the incident on Sgeir Caran she inherited a vast fortune and the Barony of Strathlin. She is locked in battle (conducted in correspondence through her solicitors) with an engineer who wants to build a lighthouse on Sgeir Caran. Meg hates the idea of a lighthouse on that mystical rock, even though it would save lives. The engineer, unbeknownst to her, is Dougal Stewart.
The two meet again when Margaret is vacationing on Caransay, the only time she allows herself to shed her trappings of finery and allow herself to be simple Meg O’Neil again. Dougal recognizes Meg as his sea fairy, but, of course, doesn’t know that she is also the hard-hearted Baroness of Strathlin.
This romance has a lot going for it. The author’s depiction of the beauties of the Isle of Caransy are wonderful. King brings to life this rugged, isolated, flower-covered island, making me long to vacation in the Inner Hebrides. The Edinburgh setting is not as vividly rendered, but the author successfully conveys the luxury, and the strictures, of Margaret’s life there, as opposed to the freedoms of Caransay.
As for the book’s characters, Dougal’s far more likable than Meg, although communication is not his strong suit. His career is intriguing, and the descriptions of the many challenges he faces in erecting a light on Sgeir Caran are fascinating. And I liked that, even when he discovers that Meg has been lying like a rug, he continues to love her in spite of his anger and hurt.
As for why Meg lies, well, this is part of the book’s major drawback. It’s a Big Secret story wherein characters do things that don’t quite gel because of plot demands. When I find myself asking, “Why does a character do this?” and the only answer I can come up with is, “Because the book would be 150 pages shorter if she didn’t,” well, that’s a problem.
Meg wrongly, and without evidence, assumes that Dougal is the worst sort of blackguard. The story she invents about him deliberately masquerading as a kelpie in order to get laid has absolutely no basis in fact; the much more reasonable explanation – that he was shipwrecked – doesn’t even occur to her. Not only does she hide from him her identity as Lady Strathlin, but she keeps an even bigger secret as well. While I could understand and respect her caution, I thought her secret-keeping went on far longer than was justified. Even after Dougal confesses his love for her and begs her to marry him, she stubbornly hides things from him – although it’s frustratingly obvious that, if she confided in him, he could help her out of her predicament. I also didn’t quite buy her reasons for disputing the placement of the lighthouse on Caransay. Her dismay is understandable, but not why she’d fight the project tooth and nail without doing a little research to find out whether her fears are justified. It’s another instance of plot-driven behavior that niggled. Because of all this, it’s very difficult to warm up to Meg as a character.
Taming the Heiress has a beautiful setting, a charming hero, and a tender love story flavored with lots of Scots romanticism. But I couldn’t get past the characters’ stubborn refusal to communicate with each other. In spite of the good writing, it’s at best an average romance.