Dream Country is less of an obvious tear-jerker than Luanne Rice's two most recent novels, Cloud Nine and Follow the Stars Home. You'll probably still cry, but you'll find that the poignant moments are more smoothly integrated into the story. Rice appears to have completed her transformation from cosmopolitan novelist to "women's fiction" author. She's on my "A list," along with Kathleen Eagle and Barbara Delinsky, when I want an intelligent, well-written relationship story.
Rice's ninth novel forsakes her typical New England setting for the wild beauty of Wyoming. This breathtaking but sometimes cruel environment was the site of Daisy Tucker's greatest joy, as well as the tragedy that nearly destroyed her. A jewelry maker, Daisy met rancher James Tucker while she was researching Native American lore for inspiration. Their blissful marriage was cut short when their three-year old son, Jake, disappeared while accompanying James on a roundup. Unable to stay in the state that had taken her son, Daisy fled back to the safety of Connecticut along with Jake's twin sister, Sage. James, tormented by guilt, refused to leave the ranch, irrationally hoping that Jake would miraculously appear one day.
Now, thirteen years later, teenaged Sage has also disappeared, leaving behind only a cryptic note. A panic-stricken Daisy soon learns that Sage has undertaken a dangerous journey to James' ranch - and that she is six months pregnant by her teenaged boyfriend. Despite serious misgivings, Daisy decides to fly to Wyoming and wait for Sage to arrive. But she is not prepared for the reaction when she sees James again, nor does she suspect that the mystery of Jake's disappearance may yet be resolved. Meanwhile, Sage's journey to Wyoming is beset with problems, as the teenaged pregnant runaway finds that not all strangers are kind ones, and that white knights can come in unlikely guises.
Dream Country contrasts the beauty and cruelty of the animal world with human beings' treatment of each other. Nature can be harsh, the author seems to suggest, but that's just the way things are; as human beings, we should be able to do better, yet we often fail. Several examples of bad parenting cause the reader to wonder why some individuals rise above the abuse, while others are destroyed by it. Humans' abuse of animals is also epidemic; the atrocities of the puppy mill business are graphically detailed because of one character's unwilling involvement.
Rice's strong yet realistic characters make the story work, despite the overused "missing child" plot. If this were a romance novel, James would be a private investigator who risks life and limb to find his child. Because it's not, James is just as damaged and wounded as Daisy. Losing Jake has made the already taciturn rancher even more withdrawn, and frankly, I never believed that he would be able to meet emotional Daisy's need for intimacy. The story of James and Daisy's reconciliation is less interesting than Sage's voyage. Sage is another one of Rice's accurately-portrayed adolescents - a good kid, but self-centered and impulsive (she was responsible for most of my tears this time around). Other secondary characters shine as well. James' father, Dalton, is a proud rancher whose descent into senility can't destroy his nobility. Dalton's long-time lover, Louisa, has lived in the shadow of his dead first wife for decades. A fascinating mix of brashness and insecurity, she desperately seeks reassurance that she matters before Dalton is lost forever to his illness.
The reader has to be willing to accept a certain amount of mysticism to appreciate the novel. Daisy's jewelry possesses a magical ability to bring love into the lives of her customers, in a whimsical Alice-Hoffman-like bit that I wish Rice had explored further. And Sage's salvation on the road to Wyoming depends on another character who is compelled to travel the same path by an inexplicable psychic signal.
A beautiful, thought-provoking novel, Dream Country will enchant readers as long as they don't mind that the romance is just one relationship among several that are intertwined. If you are a parent, be warned that the missing child theme is relentless, and you'll probably have a few nights of uneasy sleep. You can take some solace in knowing that, at least for this story, the hope and love win out over the fear and sadness.