Somehow, McCullough (''The Thorn Birds'') can write sentences like the following without forcing a reader's eyes into the back of her head -- permanently: '''Oh, Alexander, we are doomed!' she cried. 'I can't love you, and you are beginning to hate me!''' That's thanks to the pure glee the author takes in telling a sprawling epic story. Elizabeth is 16 when she's sent from Scotland to marry the rich (natch) gold-mine owner, Alexander, in New South Wales. Alexander and Elizabeth aren't devoted to each other -- his true love is an ex-prostitute who's also Elizabeth's best friend -- which leaves our heroine open for a little lusting of her own. While the story isn't exactly a roller coaster of thrills -- it's composed mostly of family and small-town dramas, accessorized with the mandatory jewels and bustling silk of romance novels -- ''The Touch'' is still wholly engaging. Skip the guilt, and just enjoy.