June 14, 2012
(+++) TUGGING AT HEARTSTRINGS
Little Night. By Luanne Rice. Pamela Dorman/Viking. $26.95.
The Silver Boat. By Luanne Rice. Penguin. $16.
Child of the Mountains. By Marilyn Sue Shank. Delacorte Press. $16.99.
Darkness Before Dawn. By J.A. London. HarperTeen. $8.99.
All Luanne Rice novels are variations on the same theme of love and family – a theme, it must be said, on which infinite variations are possible. Rice has written 30 of them so far, the latest being Little Night and the previous one (originally published last year and now available in paperback) being The Silver Boat. Rice is one of those writers who are pretty much beyond criticism: non-fans will never pick up her books except perhaps in reading clubs or other artificial environments, and fans will dismiss the cloying writing and predictable plots as Rice’s “style” – and enjoy the books for providing acceptable, even cathartic, levels of hand-wringing and tissue consumption. Certainly fans will not be disappointed by Little Night or The Silver Boat. The new book is the story of estranged sisters, one of whom tried unsuccessfully to protect the other from severe spousal abuse but ended up serving prison time for assault when the abused sister supported her husband’s version of the story (a not-uncommon occurrence in real-life abuse cases). Almost two decades later, Clare, the would-be protector, lives in New York City as an urban birder and nature blogger (a most unlikely way to live, although the descriptions of nature are among the strongest and most interesting parts of the novel). Then her estranged sister’s grown daughter, Grit (the notion of “true grit” is definitely intended), shows up at Clare’s home, needing a place to stay, and Clare and her niece begin a long healing process tied into the trauma that both of them suffered, in different ways, from Clare’s sister, Anne, and her abusive husband. Then Clare finds out that Anne is also coming to New York, following in Grit’s wake, and the prospect of a reunion – after facing the skeletons in the family’s closet – is what drives the plot. In The Silver Boat, a different but analogous plot is worked out. This is a beach novel, but scarcely a lighthearted one: the three McCarthy sisters – Dar, Delia and Rory – come to Martha’s Vineyard to sell a house known as Daggett’s Way after their mother dies; all three live too far away to use the place as a vacation home. The only bidders are people who have no sense of history and want to tear down the house to build the beach equivalent of a McMansion – anathema to sisters whose family members were among the earliest Massachusetts settlers. The women are also dealing with various crises in their lives back home. So when they find some old letters that may help them figure out what happened to their father, who disappeared when they were young, they drop everything in their lives and head for Ireland – a thoroughly unbelievable plot point that will bother Rice’s fans not at all, since it expands the family orientation of The Silver Boat to encompass additional generations and even more angst than is felt on Martha’s Vineyard. Both of these books feature warmth to the point of treacle – again, just what Rice’s readers expect and want – and both are well written within their tear-streaked genre, which neither novel makes the slightest attempt to transcend. Rice is happy and successful in her niche, and her readers will surely be glad to see how firmly she remains planted in it.
Child of the Mountains is intended for teens rather than adults, and is the first fiction by Marilyn Sue Shank, but it clearly partakes of the same sensibilities as Rice’s books. Set in 1953-54 in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, the novel focuses on Lydia Jane Hawkins, who knows she is poor but doesn’t much care as long as she has her close-knit, devoted family: widowed mom, smart younger brother BJ (who has cystic fibrosis), and wise grandmother. But then both her brother and her grandmother die, and her mother is jailed unjustly, and suddenly Lydia has lost everyone and everything that has ever mattered to her. Written in journal style and in Appalachian dialect, the slow-moving novel has an authentic feel throughout even though its pacing seems more in keeping with 1950s mountain country than 21st-century life. It is, of course, a coming-of-age story as well as a tearjerker (the two genres often overlap), and readers will find all the trappings of teenage angst in it: drunken father, grinding poverty, bullying classmates, impersonal healthcare workers, and an unfair justice system. After her mother is jailed for taking BJ home to die instead of leaving him in the hospital for doctors to treat and study, as she had previously agreed to do, Lydia goes to live with her aunt and uncle, feeling more alone than ever as she is ostracized for her homemade clothes, the way she talks, and the fact that her mother is in jail. “I’m afeared you’re going to have to grow up fast now,” Lydia’s mother tells her before going to jail, and that is what Child of the Mountains is really about: growing up in the hardest of times, under the most difficult and heartrending circumstances, while enlisting what help may be available (a teacher and his fiancée, for example, help Lydia try to get her mother freed) and learning to stand on your own when there is no one to rely on except yourself. Shank herself comes from a long line of West Virginian mountain families, which explains the sensitivity with which she portrays the land and its people. The book is nevertheless a tough slog for anyone looking for quicker pacing or fewer instances of awful things happening time and time again – despite the eventual upbeat ending.
There is angst aplenty in Sharon Draper’s Darkness Before Dawn, too, but the setting here is paranormal rather than ultra-normal. Written by the mother-and-son team of Jan and Alex Nowasky under the pen name J.A. London, the book is a vampire novel with a difference: it is set in a near-future time when vampires outnumber humans after a 30-year war between the species. The idea is intriguing, but the way it is worked with and worked out is quite formulaic. The protagonist is 17-year-old Dawn Montgomery, orphaned during the war and now, by inheritance, the ambassador between the two sides. Dawn must balance school and the normal social elements of teenage life while also attending to the requests – more like demands – of Lord Valentine, the scariest vampire of them all. Care to guess where this goes? Of course, Dawn gets into trouble, is attacked by a group of vampires, is rescued by a mysterious stranger named Victor – and then Victor turns out to be a) a vampire and b) Lord Valentine’s son. There is nothing the tiniest bit surprising about any of this; indeed, take away the vampirism and substitute something of an everyday sort – say, a poor-but-smart girl rescued in a bad neighborhood by a boy who turns out to be the son of the wealthy industrialist whose slumlord policies turned the neighborhood bad in the first place – and you would have exactly the same book. Or rather books, there being so many of these love-between-unequals tales that aspire to the mantle of Romeo-and-Juliet successors but very rarely attain it. Darkness Before Dawn proceeds almost entirely in expected directions, even to its ending with an unsurprising-to-vampire-fans cliffhanger that will be picked up in the second book of what is planned to be a trilogy. Indeed, an excerpt from the follow-up novel, Blood-Kissed Sky, is included at the end of Darkness Before Dawn, for readers who cannot wait to find out what happens next. Alternatively, they can look up any star-crossed-lovers tale, paranormal or not, for a pretty good idea of what is on the horizon. This is not to say that Darkness Before Dawn isn’t entertaining – it often is. But it is entertaining in wholly expected, easy-to-anticipate ways that place it firmly within its genre – a good thing for fans, but nothing particularly special for them, and certainly nothing that would reach out to anyone not already enamored of vampiric romance.