I can’t understand why Barbara Bretton hasn’t yet followed Kristin Hannah, Barbara Samuel/Ruth Wind and Barbara Delinsky into the realm of mainstream hardcover success. Her Women’s Fiction is well-written and insightful with just the right blend of realism and romance. Maybe it’s her settings - while Hannah places her characters in ultra-hip Seattle and Samuel chooses the scenic Southwest, most of Bretton’s stories take place in her native New Jersey, which is more likely to be a punchline than a romantic destination. Whatever the reason, Bretton deserves greater success. Shore Lights, written during an emotional period in her personal life, may be her best novel yet.
Actually, the novel starts in Seattle, but it doesn’t linger there for long. Maddy Bainbridge, unemployed accountant and single parent, reluctantly accepts her mother’s offer to move back temporarily to her New Jersey shore hometown, where Rose Bainbridge runs a successful bed and breakfast inn. Maddy knows this is a bad idea; she and Rose are like oil and water with vastly different temperaments and priorities. Their always tense relationship was permanently damaged four years ago when Rose didn’t show up for the birth of Maddy’s daughter, Hannah. But Maddy has run out of options, and she’s hoping that the company of her many Jersey aunts and cousins will be good for Hannah.
An incident that takes place a few months later confirms Maddy’s misgivings. Now settled in at the Candlelight Inn, Maddy is bidding on-line for an unusual Russian samovar that she wants to give Hannah, who loves anything connected to Aladdin and Jasmine. Rose catches a glimpse of the transaction and admonishes Maddy for being an impractical spendthrift. Maddy lashes back in anger. Obviously, mother and daughter are still miles apart emotionally. Adding to Maddy’s stress level is that fact that, surprisingly, another on-line bidder is competing with Maddy for the teapot. Who is this “FireGuy” and why does he care about an old dented teapot?
Meanwhile, across town, former firefighter Aidan O’Malley is cursing the anonymous bidder who wants the samovar he has been trying to purchase for his teenaged daughter Kelly. It’s an unusual gift, but Kelly thinks the teapot is the same one she saw in a picture of his aged Grandmother Irene, back when she and his Grandfather Michael ran a successful restaurant. Aidan suspects that cranky old Irene won’t appreciate the gift, but since Aidan’s wife died many years ago, he has raised Kelly by himself, and he can’t deny her much. The past two years have been particularly difficult; Aidan’s only brother and fellow-firefighter Billy was killed on duty and Aidan was permanently injured while trying to rescue him. Aidan doesn’t know who this “JerseyGirl” is, but surely if she knew the circumstances she would let him have the teapot for Kelly and Grandma Irene, wouldn’t she?
The teapot will eventually bring Maddy and Aidan together, but perhaps even more importantly, it is the mechanism through which Maddy and Rose finally begin to understand each other. In the author’s afterward, Bretton notes that she recently lost her own mother to cancer. Because of that experience, she wanted to write a novel that explored the unique parent/child bond as much as it portrayed romantic love. She succeeds admirably. Rose and Maddy have allowed their differences to come between them instead of appreciating the other’s uniqueness. Rose obviously loves her daughter but doesn’t know how to express it. Maddy never received enough approval as a child and left home when she realized it was never going to be forthcoming, but fails to recognize Rose’s small but genuine gestures of affection. Rose’s Big Secret about her absence at Hannah’s birth remains between them even after they begin to reconcile, but by the time it is revealed both are ready to move past the mistakes and start over while they still have time.
Maddy and Aidan have great chemistry together, but their relationship develops slowly given all of the other events taking place, including Grandma Irene’s own secrets, a Christmastime snowstorm and a medical crisis. Bretton juggles these multiple plotlines with seasoned skill, rarely letting them get out of control.
The large cast of characters, which includes members of both Aidan’s and Maddy’s extended families, occasionally becomes unwieldy and overwhelming for the reader, but they contribute even more depth to the plot. Add in a miniature poodle with a bladder problem and you have a rich novel full of wry humor and sweet poignancy. There’s a touch of magic in the Russian teapot, but the majority of the novel’s magic comes from the author’s ability to portray the nuances of human relationships at both their worst and best. I am sorry for Bretton’s recent losses, but she has worked through her pain to produce a powerful read.