A Highlander Walks Into a Bar
A few years ago, I came across a book called Furious Love about the marriage of actors Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. I never read it, but the title gave me the vocabulary to explain what my standard is for all romance (real and fictional): it needs to be furious. Which is why I was disappointed to realize that while Laura Trentham’s A Highlander Walks Into a Bar offers snappy writing, positive relationships, and some of the best similes I have had the pleasure to read, it offers only lukewarm love (and sex).
Isabel Buchanan is a devoted daughter living with her mother, Rose, in Highland, Georgia, where they reside in a faux castle and preside over their mad-for-plaid town’s annual Highland Games at which all the citizens eat haggis and watch the menfolk compete in traditional displays of masculinity. When Isabel’s mother brings home an actual (and mercifully age-appropriate) Highlander, Isabel is not pleased and sure that he’s up to something.
Londoner Alasdair Blackmoor is trying to fill the hole in his soul that remains despite his corporate success when he finds out that his estranged uncle, a Scottish earl, has gallivanted off to Highland, Georgia. Dispatched to retrieve him, Alasdair instead starts to find traces of his former happy self in the town of Highland and, eventually, in Isabel’s bed. Unfortunately, his uncle has asked him not to tell the Buchanan women about his title (they also hide their familial connection). And when Alasdair accidentally gets his greedy boss intrigued by the value of the Buchanan family property, he suddenly has lots of secrets to keep track of.
This book has a lot of things going for it. It engaged me with its abundance of phenomenal similes – for example, when Isabel grabs some condoms, it says “Like she was performing a magic trick, the package popped out of her hand like a triggered fake snake in a can”. The town of Highland and its residents are the perfect sort of quirky and endearing – along the lines of Stars Hollow in television’s Gilmore Girls – and never feel like cheap stereotypes. I also really appreciated Isabel’s relationship with her mother. A pet peeve of mine is mother/daughter angst, and Isabel and Rose obviously love each other and always treat each other with respect. Sadly, the book’s big problems lie with what should be the foundations of a good romance: the main characters and the sex.
I heard once – and agree – that the best characters are ones that have differences (political, dispositional, socioeconomic, religious), because those differences generate relationship tension, and this leads to plot. A Highlander Walks Into a Bar, however, focuses on two characters who are profoundly similar. Isabel and Alasdair are both sweet lost souls who took up unfulfilling but financially rewarding careers, lost their fathers in ways that affected them deeply, and live as heirs to grand inheritances of property. They match each other so perfectly that the evolution of their relationship is so natural as to be dull, instead of an against-all-odds struggle full of delicious chemistry that takes the characters by surprise and leaves them naked and panting against a tree!
And speaking of nudity and trees… there was not nearly enough sex in this book. I like my romance novel sex to be explicit, though it does not have to be erotica-level – just detailed and thorough. I love watching the main couple’s sexual relationship grow deeper and more adventurous as their emotional relationship does. So, I was furiously dismayed that the entire book has a sex scene. Note the use of the singular. My comment on the final page of my copy, when this became clear, was literally ‘One sex scene. . . REALLY?’. And rather like the irritating person who informs you how wonderful the cake they’re eating is while not offering you a single bite, the book keeps mentioning things such as:
She’d left Alasdair in the shower to finish washing after he’d joined her halfway through shampooing her hair. It had been a new and invigorating experience she mostly definitely didn’t want to discuss with her mom.
Tragically, the author didn’t want to discuss it with the reader either. I was not amused.
If you approach A Highlander Walks Into a Bar with the assumption that it will be a read that won’t trouble you with any drama or sexy scenes that distract you with memories while you drive, then it will be fun. (If you’re wondering how all the lying about identities on Alasdair’s part and the issue of his boss trying to buy the Buchanan home can fail to yield real drama, take my word for it, it does. It all gets resolved as easily as wiping up spilled milk.) However, if you approach it for a high-emotion romance like I did, you’ll find yourself turning pages with false hope. A Highlander Walks Into a Bar… and nothing frightfully interesting happens.
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