The back cover of Sheltering Rain compares the debut novel by British journalist JoJo Moyes to the work of Rosamunde Pilcher and Maeve Binchy. But while Moyes shares these esteemed authors’ ability to write lengthy character-driven novels, she isn’t near their equal yet. Her saga of anger, hurt and reconciliation among three generations of women is excruciatingly slow, only catching fire late in the novel, when the reader has long since given up on the characters.
The book begins with a promising prologue set in 1953. Joy Leonard is dreading the prospect of another dull party common among the English residents of Hong Kong. But her life is transformed when she meets a young, equally shy naval officer named Edward Ballantyne, who is relieved to find a kindred soul. His impulsive marriage proposal after one date seems like the answer to Joy’s prayers.
Chapter One takes place 44 years later. Joy and Edward, long settled in Ireland, are estranged from their daughter Kate. But Kate’s 16-year old daughter Sabine is sent to live with her grandparents while Kate sorts out her latest love affair crisis. At first, Sabine is horrified to be stuck in the dreary countryside with no Internet and no social life. She finds her grandmother strict and cold, and her grandfather a barely coherent invalid. Yet little by little Sabine learns to appreciate the small pleasures of rural Ireland. But when Edward’s health worsens and Kate returns, the tentative relationship that Sabine and Joy have established is threatened. Joy realizes that it’s time to let go of long-held family secrets that have contributed to her strained relationship with Kate. If she doesn’t act, the Ballantyne legacy of estrangement between mother and daughter will be irrevocably passed on to another generation.
If Moyes had spent more time lingering over Joy’s intriguing life, the novel would have been much stronger. Traveling with the young couple who married so impetuously from Hong Kong to various naval postings and then finally to Ireland would have been a compelling journey. Instead, most of the novel is spent with the sulky Sabine in rainy Ireland. You can’t help feeling sorry for the girl who has basically been dumped by her mother, but it’s hard to warm up to her adolescent angst. She’s a pillar of strength, however, compared to Kate, who rebelled against her parents’ lifestyle and left home as a pregnant teenager, then drifted through a series of unfulfilling relationships with men. When she returns home, she finds some measure of true love, but it’s hard to understand what her Mr. Right sees in this selfish, flighty woman.
Moyes is a talented wordsmith who creates vividly descriptive images of the Irish countryside, but her plotting and pacing are awkward. There are no flashbacks to Kate’s childhood, so the discussion about her unhappiness and a long-lost love don’t resonate with the reader; it’s all tell but no show. The scenes recalling Joy and Edward’s first years of marriage are few and far between, and the shocking family secret, when finally revealed after almost 400 pages, is anticlimactic. Sabine’s gradual realization that her life in Ireland is more meaningful than anything she experienced in London is a tedious process, and a subplot about a neighbor with a mysterious problem is underdeveloped.
After 435 pages, I was relieved to be rid of this unhappy family and not terribly optimistic that better times were ahead for them. Moyes’ second novel, Windfall, has already been released in hardcover in the U.S. and a third novel will be published in her native Britain this summer. Unless you’re a fan of long-winded family drama, I’d wait and see if her skills improve with experience.