The Beach House by Georgia Bockoven
(Harper Monogram, $6.50, PG) ISBN 0-06-108440-9
****
With The Beach House, Georgia Bockoven once again demonstrates one of the strongest voices in contemporary women's fiction. While not a standard romance in structure, there is plenty of romance in this book, and the somewhat unusual format will keep you reading. I can't adequately describe it in 600 words or so, so bear with me while I try to do it justice.

Julia Huntington is the young widow of a computer software magnate who recently died of a heart attack. She comes to their beach cottage on Monterey Bay to give the place a cleaning and prepare it for the summer renters, though to even step inside the door is almost more agonizing than she can bear. She and her husband shared a deep and satisfying love. She can't imagine going through life without him.

Her next-door neighbor turns out to be a surprise. He's Eric Lawson, a doctor who has given up his practice after a painful divorce and come to the coast to try and write a medical thriller. Eric quickly recognizes another wounded soul in Julia, and extends a hand of friendship. She hesitantly accepts.

But Julia is only there for a week, and then the June renters will arrive, and then the renters for July and then August. And this is as much their story as Julia's. It's really four intricately intertwined tales, alternately satisfying, heartbreaking, and hopeful by turns.

June brings Chris Sadler, age seventeen and a state wrestling champion. He arrives with his mother and anticipates the usual visit of his mother's friend Beverly and her daughter, Tracy. Chris has fancied himself in love with Tracy for ten years. Maybe this summer she'll notice him. But Tracy arrives with a girlfriend, Janice, and a determination to be as wild as she wants to be, unencumbered by the geeky boy who has always followed her with puppy love in his eyes.

Chris makes friends with members of a film crew, and his life takes several unexpected turns as he grapples with his dawning awareness of Tracy's true personality. This was a poignant section of the book, and it left me wanting to know how life turned out for him.

July's renters, Joseph and Maggie, are a lovely couple in their eighties. After sixty-five years of marriage, they are bravely facing Maggie's cancer with a determination to live each remaining day to the fullest. Maggie finds in Eric's two visiting children an outlet for all her grandmotherly instincts, denied her in her own life. And as Maggie grows weaker, Joseph finds a way to give her the ultimate gift of love.

I cried nonstop through this entire section. Ms. Bockoven presented Maggie and Joe's story beautifully; it was compassionate but matter-of-fact. No flowery prose here, just a celebration of a lifetime of love. Maggie and Joseph's actions have repercussions into August and beyond, and in this book, July alone is worth the cover price. Heck, I'm crying again just writing this review.

August brings Katherine to the beach. She's a minister's wife facing a divorce, and unbeknownst to her, she's been admired from afar for years by Peter Wylie, a successful artist who lives at the beach year-round. He asks Katherine to pose for a painting and she accepts. This will be the catalyst to a friendship which may lead to more, as Katherine make a tough decision about her marriage and her future.

I enjoyed getting to know every single character in this book (well, maybe not Tracy) and I found the conglomerate of stories fascinating. Ms. Bockoven has a sure ear for dialogue, and her obvious knowledge of the settings brought them to vivid life. I could almost hear the gulls screaming.

There were a couple of plot elements that didn't ring true, however. Eric's submission of a half-finished first novel to an agent brings a reaction that I felt was more in keeping with a 1930's movie than a contemporary novel. It seemed borderline ridiculous and unnecessary. His character was already well-established and didn't need the added embellishment to convince the reader he didn't just love Julia for her money.

Beverly was realistic but irritating in that she was such an inept, self-absorbed parent that I couldn't help but feel she got exactly what she deserved. Yes, I know, this is set in California, and maybe letting a seventeen-year-old girl borrow your car and stay out until four in the morning is acceptable there (though I doubt it), but she was supposed to be from St. Louis. Solid Midwestern values and all that. No wonder the kid was a spoiled witch. I was hoping for a good riptide, myself, or maybe a shark attack.

But Eric was a peach. I especially liked that Ms. Bockoven didn't drag in the old "ex-wife as shrew" plot element. Eric knows full well that his own actions helped bring about the breakup, and he sincerely admires his ex. I, in turn, admired him for that.

The Beach House is a don't-miss read for those who like interwoven stories and a variety of romance. I know Maggie and Joseph especially have staked a place in my heart for a long time to come.

--Cathy Sova


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