The warm and fuzzy flowered book cover of Luanne Rice’s latest novel is somewhat misleading; The Perfect Summer is more similar to her previous suspense novel, The Secret Hour than to her family sagas such as Safe Harbor and True Blue. At times almost unbearably grim but ultimately hopeful, The Perfect Summer will please fans of this prolific author.
The book’s title is also ironic; Bay McCabe’s summer is anything but perfect. The first sign of trouble is when her husband Sean fails to pick up their daughter Peg from softball practice. Bay and Sean have weathered some difficult times in their marriage, including Sean’s recent infidelity, but her charming, ambitious husband, a bank vice president, had promised to reform. Days later, infidelity is the least of Bay’s problems; Sean is still nowhere to be found, and the FBI arrives to investigate charges that he embezzled thousands of dollars.
Bay and her three children are devastated by these events, but she finds emotional support from her best friend Tara, and from a surprising additional source. As an awkward teenager, Bay had a crush on Dan Connolly, a young college graduate who spent a summer building a boardwalk for their Connecticut seaside town. Now, surprisingly, several clues tie Sean’s disappearance to Dan and his boat-building business. As the case turns more tragic and sinister, Bay and Dan seek solace from each other, as do their children. But both Bay and Dan are scarred and reluctant to trust again. Long-held secrets may lead to further betrayals, and new danger to their loved ones.
I have to admit that the disappearing husband is not one of my favorite plots. It makes the heroine look foolish from the start – why didn’t she have any idea that this was coming? – and it puts her at an often insurmountable disadvantage. Sean’s disappearance makes The Perfect Summer difficult to read at times, as Bay has to help her children cope with their agonizing anger and grief when their worst fears prove to be true. Because of this subplot, the romance between Bay and Dan is too somber to catch fire. While Bay has to react to events for most of the novel, rendering her stoic but passive, she has a chance to demonstrate her strength at the story’s conclusion.
Fortunately, Rice’s skill in creating complex secondary characters provides the novel with much needed spark and depth. While she often writes about the strong bonds between sisters, in The Perfect Summer she proves that the relationship between best friends such as Tara and Bay can be just as meaningful. There’s a spirited secondary romance for the free-spirited Tara, and other interesting characters including Dan’s troubled daughter Eliza, FBI agent and good guy Joe; and the imperious Augusta Renwick, who first made her appearance in Rice’s excellent novel Firefly Beach.
The story is weakened by a few plot holes – why one character holds on to a secret until it’s almost too late is never satisfactorily explained – but for the most part Rice adeptly weaves the multiple plot lines together until they converge in a riveting climax. The novel’s 400+ pages move swiftly despite the tragedies that Bay and her family must overcome.
Although she’s released a few mediocre efforts (True Blue comes to mind), Luanne Rice remains one of the genre’s most consistent and productive women’s fiction authors. Her recent move towards more suspenseful stories hasn’t diminished her focus on developing interesting characters and studying the dynamics of their interactions. After 15 novels, she’s still going strong, and if she’s smart, she has stock in Kleenex TM; she’s probably single-handedly responsible for doubling their sales.