Kristin Hannah has always been a master at tugging on the heartstrings. But her last two novels, On Mystic Lake and Angel Falls, went a little too far towards the maudlin side. Her heroines were weepy or passive - one was even in a coma, for goodness’ sake - and the plots slogged along through a morass of tears. The emotion is still front and center in Summer Island, but this time the heroine is spirited enough to carry the load.
Ruby Bridge doesn’t have a chip on her shoulder - she has a boulder, which has been in place ever since her mother walked out on the family when Ruby was sixteen. Shortly thereafter, Ruby left behind her Pacific Northwest home and her childhood sweetheart for the struggling life of a comedian in southern California. Almost ten years later, her latest lover has just left, and her career is going nowhere: ”Everyone knew that if you didn’t make it by thirty, you were toast. And Ruby was beginning to think that she should start collecting jam”. Then she gets the offer of a lifetime: a national magazine wants her to write a tell-all article about her now famous mother in return for a fabulous sum of money. All Ruby has to do is put down all of the animosity she feels on paper - a piece of cake for the bitter but creative daughter.
The American public knows Nora Bridge as a beloved newspaper columnist and radio personality, host of Spiritual Healing with Nora. She always encourages her listeners to honor the sanctity of the family. But when illicit pictures of Nora and another man surface, her listeners’ respect and love turn to anger and scorn. Nora, watching her career go up in flames, decides to lick her wounds and hide out in the family’s old home on Summer Island. When Nora is hurt in a self-destructive car accident, Ruby reluctantly agrees to help care for her temporarily, figuring she can gather more ammunition for her poison pen article.
Not so fast. That week changes Ruby’s life, and her perspective on everything. Gradually she learns the truth about her parents’ marriage and about the events that led to her mother’s precipitous departure so many years ago. She learns that her older sister Caroline, who seemed to move past the loss without any ill effects, was as scarred as the other family members. And before it’s too late, she realizes that the one love of her life may still want her…if she has the courage to risk loving someone, after spending years punishing herself and everyone around her for being so unlovable.
Kristin Hannah packs a lot of plot - parents, siblings, death, divorce, infidelity - into 320 pages. That’s a lot to juggle, and sometimes it feels as if crises are resolved a little too quickly to be realistic, like a 2-hour television movie-of-the-week. But if the plot is a little tarnished, the characters are pure gold. Finally, a Kristin Hannah heroine who won’t take sh*t from anyone. The smart-mouthed, Gothic-looking Ruby is a cynical gal’s treasure. Yet eventually she realizes that her anger over her mother’s abandonment, while justified, ruled her life and turned her into a selfish, wounded soul. She finally learns that there were no heroes or villains in her family, just two very human parents who both made mistakes. At first it’s difficult to appreciate Nora, because she is seen primarily through Ruby’s biased eyes. But gradually the reader realizes, as Ruby does, that she had good reasons to make difficult choices, and that she never stopped loving her family.
The novel is filled with wonderful, realistic and telling scenes, such as when Nora and Ruby first go grocery shopping together. Their antagonistic interplay shows the reader how annoying they both can be and how far they both have to move to reconcile. With gems like that encounter, you can forgive Ms. Hannah for supplying a clichéd, made-for-Hollywood scene in which the three Bridge women laugh, cry and bond with an oldies radio station supplying the soundtrack.
Ruby’s reunion romance with her first boyfriend, Dean, is sweet but feels rushed. Ruby's father makes an even briefer appearance. The men definitely take a backseat to the mother/daughter theme.
The book jacket blurb promises a free copy of Summer Island to either the reader's mother or daughter upon request (offer expires May 31, good while supplies last and all that jazz). While I don't plan to obtain a copy for my mother, the novel did make me pause and reflect on our relationship, and my responsibility for some of its friction. A book that can knock my own chip off my shoulder is powerful indeed.
I’d just about given up on Ms. Hannah, assuming that I was never going to like her hardcover women’s fiction as much as some of her earlier romance novels. Summer Island let me know that she has not lost her magic.