The Horsemaster's Daughter, by Susan Wiggs

>> Friday, April 13, 2007

I bought The Horsemaster's Daughter because I really liked the first Susan Wiggs book I read, The Charm School.

She had the power to heal. . . but would that be enough?

A wild horse, a broken man, a family in ruins and a woman with the power to heal. . .

Once a privileged son of the South, Hunter Calhoun is now a widower shadowed by the scandal of his wife's death. He's been more successful at breeding Thoroughbred racehorses than in managing his crumbling estate and in caring for his grieving children. When his prized stallion arrives from Ireland crazed and unridable, Hunter is forced to seek out the horsemaster's daughter.

His only hope is the barefooted girl, who's been brought up far removed from the social world of wealth and privilege. Eliza Flyte has inherited her father's gift for gentling horses, and she agrees to tame Hunter's Irish Thoroughbred. But her healing spirit reaches farther, drawing her to his shattered family and to the intense, bitter man who needs her—as much as she needs him.

Because Eliza understands what Hunter refuses to see -- that love is the greatest healer of all. But can someone from her world teach someone from his what truly matters in life?
It's been a while since I read this book, but this time, it was on purpose. When I finished it, I couldn't decide between a B- and a B grade. I knew I probably should go with a B-, but after some of the awkwardly written books I'd been reading (this was read during my TBR project), I was tempted to give THD extra points for being well written and easily readable. Well, stopping that TBR project and reading better books has given me some perspective, and yeah, this was very much a B- read.

Hunter Calhoun, brother of the hero of The Charm School, is an alcoholic on the verge of total ruin. The Virginia plantation he inherited from his father came with some unexpected and disastrous debts. Instead of trying to rebuild it, Hunter freed all the slaves, sold off some land and decided to breed Thoroughbreds, to his wife's displeasure. See, Lacey married Hunter with the understanding that she'd be a planter's wife, and the change ended up destroying their marriage.

Lacey is now dead, but Hunter is still struggling, both with his family and his business. His little son, Blue, hasn't spoken since his mother's death, and Hunter has no idea how to be a father to him and his sister. As for the horses, Hunter had put all his hopes on a stallion he'd bought from Ireland, but which turned out to be completely crazed. He's about to finally shoot the horse and put all of them out of their misery, when his nephew pleads with him for a reprieve, telling him there's a man on a nearby island who can help.

Hunter is unconvinced, but willing to give it a try. However, he arrives at the island only to find out the horsemaster has died some months ago. The only one left is his daughter, Eliza, but she just might have inherited her father's talent with horses.

The first part of the book, while Hunter and Eliza were at the island, was pretty good. Hunter is ready to give up when he hears Eliza's father has died, but she slowly shows him that her father's methods didn't die with him, and gradually succeeds in gentling the horse. I really liked the way Wiggs wrote her methods, the sense that Eliza could get into the horse's head and understand the reasons why he was doing things and how to convince him to change his ways. She's a Horse Whisperer kind of character, and that aspect was really well written.

I also enjoyed the developing relationship between Eliza and Hunter, even though I wasn't crazy about how she was such a "wild child" character, all naive and innocent and completely unaware of society's rules with regards to men and women. Still, there was a dreamy atmosphere here that I enjoyed; a sense of being apart from the real world, in a place where society's silly rules needn't apply.

But this part ended soon enough, when it became clear that Eliza was in danger because of some of her father's activities. Hunter drags her back with him to the ex-plantation, supposedly so she can continue working with the stallion, but of course, Eliza takes one look at the sad kiddies and that's it for the Horse Whisperer plot.

At about that point, she just stopped being interesting to me. Rather than the almost mystical character she'd been up until then, she becomes this expert nanny, bent on fixing the hero's children. The book shouldn't be called The Horsemaster's Daughter, it should be The Super-Nanny, because Eliza spends much more time being the latter than the former. And it's so boring! The hero's son, who hasn't spoken since his mother died? I think I've seen this character 1.000 times before, and the reason why he doesn't speak is always the same.

Plus, Hunter, who actually hadn't been that likeable in the first part, becomes even more whiny and selfish. I wanted to shake the man awake. Enough already, get a grip! Your life hasn't been that tragic. Was I supposed to feel so sorry for him because he didn't receive a super, wonderful inheritance from his father and needs to work to succeed in life? Why? That describes me and most of my friends. It's no excuse to neglect his children the way he's been doing, and to treat Eliza as he does.

As for his late wife, part of it was his own fault, so the heavy demonization of Lacey irritated me. Yes, marriage means "in sickness and in health", and all that, but I got the feeling that Lacey's problems weren't so much with the fact that the plantation wasn't as prosperous as she expected, but with its not being a plantation anymore. And I just can't ignore the fact that Hunter didn't consult her at all about his plans to radically change their way of life, and even when she made it clear that she would hate those changes, he went ahead and made them anyway. So he wasn't such a prize husband either.

Huh. It seems I disliked it more than I thought! At least the second half. I'd better stop before I talk myself into lowering my grade to a C+!


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