Luanne Rice gets the 2001 Nora Roberts award for prolific writing. Firefly Beach is the second of three new novels she is releasing this year, along with a paperback version of 2000’s Follow the Stars Home, and a “Hallmark Hall of Fame” television movie based on that title as well. Fortunately, I haven’t seen any erosion in the quality of her work. She’s absolutely unparalleled in the world of women’s fiction. If you like well-written stories with complex family dynamics, you can’t go wrong with this author.
Caroline Renwick is the oldest of painter Hugh Renwick’s three daughters. A modern-day Hemingway, Hugh was almost as famous for his wild lifestyle as for his artwork. His infidelity to the girls’ mother, Augusta, led to a tragic, bloody confrontation at the Renwick’s Connecticut shore house. The husband of Hugh’s current mistress came looking for revenge but ultimately took his own life in front of five-year-old Caroline, her younger sister Clea and a pregnant Augusta.
Strangely, Caroline’s strongest emotion was pity for the dead man’s young son, and she started an unorthodox correspondence with Joe Conner that lasted for ten years. The letters they exchanged fostered a youthful romance, which was abruptly cut short when Joe learned the truth about his father’s death and severed the relationship in anger. Meanwhile, Hugh Renwick, distraught that his children had been put in danger, tried to toughen them up by teaching them to hunt and fend for themselves in the wilderness, an irrational gesture that led to more disaster.
Thirty years after the tragedy, the sisters remain on Firefly Beach. Hugh has been dead for seven years, but his legacy lives on at Caroline’s retreat for aspiring artists. The undisputed caretaker of her sisters, Caroline’s only quirk is her tendency to take off on sudden trips whenever the pressure of holding her family together overwhelms her. Middle sister Clea has chosen a safe path, far removed from her father’s antics, by becoming the wife of a minister and the mother of two children. The youngest daughter, Skye, is the most troubled. She has inherited her father’s artistic talent, but also his wild, reckless behavior. Haunted by past mistakes, she drinks heavily and has a self-destructive, volatile marriage with a man who is a pale shadow of Hugh - less talented, but with the same adulterous behavior. Meanwhile, Augusta relies on a strong sense of denial to convince herself that everyone is happy and that her marriage to Hugh was perfect.
Into this unhealthy but stable world comes Joe Conner, now a successful oceanographer and treasure hunter. Joe has come to Firefly Beach to search for a ship that sank more than 200 years ago, but the treasure he finds is secondary to the possibility of rekindling his relationship with Caroline - if Joe can get beyond his anger, if Caroline can put aside her caretaker role and take something for herself, if the Renwick family’s troubles don’t overshadow their chances at happiness.
The Renwicks are a fascinating if highly dysfunctional group. The reader can identify with their emotions and their dynamics, even if their life events are extraordinary. Rice keenly portrays the role that each sister has chosen as a reaction to their father’s outrageousness and their mother’s neglect. She doesn’t judge, but encourages the reader to recognize each character’s goodness, despite their imperfections. For some characters, such as Caroline, that’s easy, and for others, such as Augusta, that’s a challenge. Rice’s talent is evident in her ability to portray a self-absorbed woman like Augusta (who blames Skye’s drunk-driving accident on “unsafe roads”) and render her more than halfway sympathetic, so that when she finally moves beyond her denial, the reader is happy for her.
Firefly Beach is less mystical than Dream Country and less of a tear-jerker than Cloud Nine. The relationship between Caroline and Joe is extremely poignant because of their past history. Both have built walls of protection around their hearts to avoid being hurt, but as Joe realizes, “Sometimes it’s more generous to take than to give…If you’re always the one giving, you never have to feel disappointed because you don’t expect anything in return. But it’s miserly in its own way. Because you never leave yourself open or give the other person a chance.” Watching these two reserved but not cruel individuals find each other after years of silence is very satisfying.
Women’s fiction gets a bad rap from many reviewers, even from those who like romance novels. But what’s wrong with intelligent, engaging stories about relationships among people you care about? So what if the romance is only one of several plot lines? In real life, romance doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Keep those books coming, Ms. Rice. I, for one, can’t get enough of them.