Cypress Point by Diane Chamberlain
(Mira, $22.95, PG) ISBN 1-55166-882-3
Cypress Point isn’t a comfortable or reassuring read. However, it might appeal to readers who can appreciate a thought-provoking women’s fiction novel.

In her work as a hospital social worker, Joelle D’Angelo has helped many pregnant women and new mothers with serious problems, but none of them could hold a candle to the issue she is now facing by herself. A little more than a year ago, Joelle’s best friend, Mara Sommers, suffered an aneurysm while giving birth that caused severe brain damage. Confined to a nursing home, Mara no longer has any of the facilities that made her a top-notch psychiatrist; she’s conscious but functions at the level of a happy infant. Mara’s husband, Liam, has been devastated by the loss of his wife and the responsibilities he now faces as a single father to his young son. He couldn’t have made it through the past year without Joelle’s support and help.

A few months ago, in a moment of grief, Liam and Joelle crossed a line that shouldn’t have been breached, and now Joelle is pregnant. She loves Liam but refuses to burden him with the shocking news, so she plans to move away from her Carmel home and start over. But before she does, she is urged by her unconventional parents to seek the help of Carlynn Shire, a respected physician who allegedly has miraculous healing powers.

Thirty-four years ago, Carlynn was present at Joelle’s birth, and she saved the newborn’s life with her special skills. But Carlynn also suffered a terrible loss that same week, and Joelle fears that her request will be denied because Carlynn won’t want to be reminded of that tragedy. Joelle also knows that Carlynn’s success will mean that Liam is forever lost to her. Yet she can’t overlook any possible cure for Mara’s disability, no matter how far-fetched. As Joelle hopes for a miracle, Carlynn relives the path that brought her to Joelle’s birth. Her special talent, evident from childhood, has brought tremendous rewards and insurmountable losses. Joelle’s selflessness eventually inspires Carlynn to reveal shocking secrets about her past.

Cypress Point is a well-written but somewhat unnerving and inaccessible novel. The chapters alternate between Joelle’s dilemma and flashbacks to Carlynn’s past, which prevents the reader from becoming fully involved in either story. Chamberlain profiles the guilt and sorrow that Liam and Joelle both feel with great insight, but the result is that there’s no compelling reason to root for them as a couple - in fact, the reader feels guilty for doing so, considering the fact that Mara is still very much alive, if non compos mentis. At times I wondered if Mara, who hadn’t really wanted children, was being subtly punished for her ambivalence while Joelle, who had longed for years to be a mother, was rewarded. I didn’t like the message that suggested, but maybe I’m just being paranoid.

Carlynn’s story lacks momentum until the last 50 pages of the novel, and the mechanism for her healing powers is never fully explained. Chamberlain is better at exploring difficult issues than at creating three-dimensional, sympathetic characters. I give her credit, however, for a realistic and respectful portrayal of hospital social workers. So many authors don’t get it right, so on behalf of my profession, I thank her for her efforts.

Starting with a stillborn baby and ending with sprinkling a dead person’s ashes, Cypress Point is a somber novel that tackles tough issues without easy answers. Definitely not the “feel-good” novel of the year, it may be your antidote to mindless screwball comedies, but for me it was just too much of a downer.

--Susan Scribner

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