Cloud Nine by Luanne Rice
(Bantam, $19.95, PG) ISBN 0-553-11063-2
****
I'm not sure I can say that I "recommend" Cloud Nine. How can you recommend something that is such a devastating and heart-wrenching experience? I guess all I can do is summarize my impressions of this well-written but painful novel and let the romance reader judge for herself.

"Another autumn had come to Fort Cromwell, New York, and Sarah Talbot was there to see it," begins the story, and right away we learn that the fact that Sarah is alive is a miracle. Nine months ago, she was diagnosed with a deadly brain tumor. After risky brain surgery, her doctors now believe her chances for survival are good. Sarah is just beginning to feel strong enough to re-open Cloud Nine, her bedding shop. It is her 37th birthday, and her friend Meg arrives to give her a special present – a chartered 15-minute airplane ride.

Will Burke, pilot and owner of Burke Aviation, is immediately impressed by Sarah's joy in life. After another chance meeting, Sarah asks Will for a favor. She wants to spend Thanksgiving with her estranged 17-year old son, Mike, who lives with her father on a remote island off the coast of Maine. Sarah left the island long ago after her mother died and she bore Mike out-of-wedlock. Her departure was unopposed by her grief-stricken, angry father. Mike completed the cycle of detachment by moving back to the island soon after Sarah was first diagnosed with the brain tumor. Now Sarah asks Will to fly her back home so she can reconcile with the two men she loves but does not understand.

Will is quick to agree. He has been only half alive ever since his teenaged son drowned and his wife divorced him. He remains close to his teenaged daughter, but only sees her on weekends. Until Sarah made her request, Will planned to spend the Thanksgiving holiday by himself, feasting on a few frozen turkey dinners. Will also grew up near the ocean and finds he has a lot in common with Sarah. Their trip to Elk Island turns out to be a short but potent journey of adventure, forgiveness, reconciliation and healing. Will and Sarah, in no time at all, realize they are deeply in love. But their time together may be too short.

Luanne Rice, author of six previous novels, is an extremely gifted novelist who creates realistic characters, effortlessly digs within their psyches and explores their complex relationships with each other. Will, his ex-wife, and his daughter are all trying to cope with the devastating loss of a family member and the ways they each choose to deal with the unthinkable grief are understandably maladaptive. They're imperfect but sympathetic characters who are trying to endure. Likewise, Sarah, her father and her son are also dealing with their own losses and disappointments but in the end they are able to respect each other's choices and the disparate ways they show their love for each other.

The last third of the novel, as the inevitable tragedy happens, are the most painful 100 pages I've read in recent memory. It was difficult for me to get past the sadness I felt to grasp the novel's messages that love is a miracle whenever it happens, for however long it is able to prevail, and that life is a precious gift that should be savored each moment.

It took me at least a full day after I finished Cloud Nine to emerge from the blue funk it left me in and realize that the story's events hadn't happened to anyone I knew –that the characters were fictional, after all – that life goes on. It's to Ms. Rice's credit that her powerful writing and dead-on characterization made such a strong impact on me. I have no doubt they will have a similar effect on any romance readers who decide to risk their heart and read this novel. My only advice if you do so: make sure you have a box of tissues at your side, and don't let any family or friends disturb you during the last 100 pages. And consider yourself warned.

--Susan Scribner


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