Autumn in Scotland
Autumn in Scotland is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Ranney’s usual sure hand is at play in her creation of complex characters and stirring emotions. On the other hand, these characters are done a disservice by a couple of inexplicable and extraneous plotlines.
Charlotte dutifully married an impecunious Scottish nobleman, George MacKinnon, the Earl of Marne, only to be deserted when her husband left without a word, but with her dowry, one week later. Knowing he has a castle in Scotland, she goes there hoping to track him down, only to find the land poor and the castle almost a ruin. Charlotte falls in love with the place at first sight and decides to remain. She spends the next five, grueling years rebuilding the place, with the help of an inheritance from her grandfather, and establishing a school for girls, which is now hovering on the brink of becoming a huge success.
Charlotte is celebrating the first graduating class of the school with a ball, and readying the school for end of term, looking forward to four months of solitude before beginning again, when the elderly MacKinnon family butler announces the arrival of George MacKinnon, the Earl of Marne. Charlotte is horrified, but has only time to hiss a few choice words to her husband before he is bundled off and settled into his rooms while she returns to her duties as headmistress and hostess.
In the days and weeks that follow, Charlotte finds that George is different from her memories of him. He is apologetic for his treatment of her, he is kinder, he even seems handsomer, but then she saw him only three times before her short, one week marriage, so her memory of his appearance may be a bit fuzzy. But, as time goes on, and it appears that George is starting to really care for her, she finds it hard to hang on to her righteous indignation.
The new arrival is not George, but Dixon MacKinnon, cousin to George who was raised there at Balfurin. Dixon has been gone for ten years, the family black sheep who made good in Malaysia, becoming insanely rich through his exporting and shipping companies. He married while in Malaysia but is now widowed. He attributes his wife’s death to his own greed and ambition, and is now filled with remorse and guilt, lonely and sick at heart, and homesick for Balfurin. He has come home to feel connected again – to the land, to the people, and to find himself. But he finds not himself, but George’s wife and the life that George could have led.
Dixon always wanted to be the earl and envied George his inheritance. Not necessarily for the title’s sake, but for Balfurin, the land, the heritage – none of which George cared a whit for. It is too easy for Dixon to pretend to be what he has always wanted, and the more he gets to know Charlotte, the greater his envy of his cousin and the greater his acknowledgement of his own waning honor. He knows he should tell Charlotte who he is, but he does not.
I found this inaction of his to be beyond the pale. Charlotte is truly frightened of losing her school, her hard fought control over her own life and all she has worked for. What he puts her through is inexcusable. And unnecessary. If he had told Charlotte who he was and offered to help track down his errant cousin, Charlotte would have welcomed Dixon. She is desperate to find George because while it is easier for a woman to obtain a divorce in Scotland than in England, she has been unable to do so because George disappeared off the face of the earth. For Dixon to lie to Charlotte about who he is – even after he has slept with her – is the big flaw in this book for me. The complete lack of need and rationale for this plot device, and the pain it caused Charlotte, made it difficult to enjoy the book.
The other superfluous and puzzling aspect of the book is the presence of the Edification Society. This is a group of little old ladies, lions of Scottish society, whose young relations are students at Charlotte’s school, and who are quite titillated by Charlotte’s husband’s return and wish to tutor her in the “wifely arts” – sex. Charlotte is appalled. She doesn’t want to seduce and sexually punish her husband, as they advise, she just wants him gone. The few scenes with the Edification Society scattered throughout the book are meant to be comic relief, but they just seemed so completely removed from the atmosphere and tone of the rest of the book, that they felt intrusive and distinctly unfunny.
There are some lovely aspects to Autumn in Scotland; there is an interesting treasure hunt side plot, and a wonderful secondary romance between Dixon’s Malaysian secretary and Charlotte’s ladies’ maid. Charlotte and Dixon are well drawn, fully realized characters and their journey to love was convincingly done and the love scenes were emotionally, as well as physically, stirring. However, I spent the majority of my time reading the book muttering to myself, “I can’t believe he still hasn’t told her,” dreading the eventual denouement, and resenting the unnecessary plot contrivances, that my enjoyment of the book was severely curtailed.
Karen Ranney was one of the authors for whom I voted in the recent Hanky Read Authors Mini-Poll because she doesn’t let her characters take the easy way out. There were no deux ex machina in previous books – the wonderful After the Kiss or One Man’s Love – but difficult situations where difficult, wrenching decisions had to be made, comforts or legacies abandoned for the sake of love. I did not experience the same satisfaction at the end of this Ranney read; the ending felt too pat and convenient.
I will certainly read Karen Ranney again – she is an excellent writer who writes with emotional depth, but I was ultimately disappointed with Autumn in Scotland.