|I’ve reviewed eight novels by prolific author Luanne Rice since 1998, and while some have been better than others, none of them made me mad until Dance With Me. Maybe producing so many books in six years has led to literary burnout. There has to be some reason why Rice has stooped to such a clichéd, predictable melodrama and utilized a heroine who needs a good spanking.
After 15 years in New York City, Jane Porter returns to her hometown of Twin Rivers, Rhode Island, to help her younger sister Sylvie care for their diabetic mother, Margaret, who is showing signs of early Alzheimer’s Disease. Jane has a hidden agenda for her visit, however. She hopes to catch a glimpse of the daughter she gave up for adoption years ago when one night of carelessness with her boyfriend led to an unplanned pregnancy.
In the nearby town of Crofton, Chloe Chadwick worries about her Uncle Dylan, who has tended the family’s apple orchard in grim silence ever since his job as a U.S. Marshall led to the death of his wife and daughter four years ago. Chloe’s adolescent alienation, which had its roots in the loss of her beloved cousin, is furthered by the knowledge that she was adopted as an infant; she loves her parents, but they don’t understand what makes her tick. Chloe feels an immediate connection with a friendly stranger she meets who offers to bake apple tarts to sell at the orchard’s roadside stand. Not only does Jane seem to understand Chloe, but she also makes Uncle Dylan smile for the first time in four years. When Chloe’s impulsiveness leads her into a risky situation, Jane is there to help her out. But how will Chloe and Dylan feel if the truth about Jane’s identity is finally revealed?
I have to admit that as an adoptive aunt, my reaction to this book may be skewed by my sensitivity to the adoptive/biological mother issue. Because of my personal experiences, I am offended by the suggestion that only Jane, as the biological mother, can truly understand and bond with Chloe, while Sharon and Eli Chadwick, the adoptive parents, are portrayed as caring but essentially clueless. I bristle when Jane is described as Chloe’s “real mother,” when Sharon is the woman who lovingly raised her for 15 years.
However, even without that bias, I think I would have disliked Jane. A college sophomore when she gave birth – not a high-school teenager – Jane was old enough to have fought for the right to keep her baby. In fact, it seems odd that she was sent away to a home for unwed mothers; by the mid 1980’s, when the pregnancy occurred, single mothers were no shocking scandal anymore. So Jane’s constant diatribes against Margaret for forcing her to give up her baby come across as whiny. She has allegedly come home to help Sylvie care for Margaret, but she spends more time stalking Chloe than supporting her sister and mother. Her selfish behavior continues throughout the novel, so instead of rooting for her to find true love and happiness, I waited in vain for the other characters to tell her to grow up. Rice sinks to an unexpected low with the hackneyed way Jane’s Big Secret is maintained for so long – like a bad romance novel, Jane repeatedly says to Dylan “I have something to tell you,” but they are always conveniently interrupted just before she can disclose the truth.
Chloe Chadwick, on the other hand, is a strong, sympathetic character whose adolescent warmth, confusion and impulsiveness ring true. Likewise, Margaret Porter’s heartbreaking descent into dementia is poignantly portrayed, although the attempt to portray the resolution to her situation as a positive step fails miserably. There’s no happy ending for a former school principal who is losing touch with reality, and Rice wimps out by trying to give that subplot a Hallmark Hall of Fame ending. Poor Sylvie Porter deserves more attention; reading about the ongoing struggle between the dutiful younger daughter and the distant, defiant older daughter would have been compelling, but that relationship is glossed over in favor of Jane and Dylan’s romance. The issue of why the attractive Sylvie dresses like a matron and is willing to settle for a nice, boring man is barely addressed.
Maybe Rice lost her focus when she moved away from her typical Connecticut beach setting, or maybe her creative well has run dry. In either case, if someone offers you Dance With Me, tell them you’ll sit this one out.