Diane Chamberlain has never had the breakthrough success of other Women’s Fiction authors such as Barbara Delinsky or Luanne Rice. Maybe that’s because her novels aren’t as comfortable or safe, and because she challenges her readers with three-dimensional, all-too-human characters. Her Mother’s Shadow, which wraps up a trilogy that started with Keeper of the Light and Kiss River, is one of her best novels. Readers who like dramatic Women’s Fiction peppered with surprising plot twists will not be disappointed.
Lacey O’Neill has long been haunted by her mother’s murder, which she witnessed as a teenager. The senseless killing of the woman that the residents of Kiss River, North Carolina called “St. Anne” sent Lacey into a spiral of reckless behavior that was abruptly curtailed when she learned the disturbing truth –that Annie O’Neill, in addition to being an artist and selfless community volunteer, was also a promiscuous adulteress who had numerous affairs. Learning that she had unconsciously replicated her mother’s behavior made Lacey stop her party-girl lifestyle and get the counseling she needed. Now in her mid twenties, she works part-time crafting stained glass with her biological father, Tom, and part-time in a veterinary clinic with the man she considers her real father, Alec O’Neill.
Two events threaten Lacey’s hard-fought stability. First, she learns that the man who murdered her mother is eligible for parole, bringing the memories of that tragic night close to the surface. Second, her childhood friend dies suddenly and gives Lacey guardianship of her 11-year-old daughter Mackenzie, a sullen, scared girl who resents being uprooted from her suburban Phoenix home and moved across the country. Lacey herself questions the judgment of her friend for giving her custody of a child she had only met once or twice before. Lacey’s life is further complicated by the attentions of Rick, a handsome attorney who is the type of nice guy she should be attracted to, but isn’t, and by Lacey’s decision to contact Mackenzie’s biological father. Bobby Asher is a shining example of the Bad Boy she used to sleep with and now is determined to avoid, but he might be the only person who can get Mackenzie to open up. Both Rick and Bobby are guarding secrets about their pasts, and Lacey learns it isn’t always easy to tell the Bad Boys from the good ones.
Her Mother’s Shadow is a somber, complex book that touches a lot of difficult issues. The twin themes that permeate the book are forgiveness and the human potential for change. Lacey is angry at her mother for the sins she has discovered, but she must learn to forgive her as well. She also has to forgive herself for the mistakes she has made and embrace the unique individual, neither positive nor negative reflection of her mother, that she is trying to become. Other characters in the book demonstrate that they have overcome their past transgressions to become better people. In one case, the character’s previous misbehavior, which caused a horrific tragedy, is almost indefensible. I admire Chamberlain for daring her readers to test the limits of their absolution, but I couldn’t bring myself to embrace this character despite his obvious repentance.
Chamberlain’s novels include romances, but they are rarely the central focus. Therefore more of the burden is placed on the heroine’s journey to be identifiable and compelling. I found Lacey O’Neill to be a much more sympathetic heroine than the secretive Gina from Kiss River, and I kept reading through the novel’s 400 dense pages to make sure she found the peace and happiness that had eluded her for more than 15 years. Although she’s given almost more of a burden that anyone would be expected to endure, Lacey keeps fighting until she almost literally sacrifices her life. Her honesty and courage make this novel memorable. The plot twists at times send it veering dangerously close to melodramatic soap opera, but Lacey keeps it anchored.
If you don’t mind a little bit of discomfort and ambiguity from your Women’s Fiction, you will find Her Mother’s Shadow an engaging, satisfying read. Her latest novel proves that Ms. Chamberlain does not deserve to be in anyone’s shadow.