Maybe Luanne Rice burned herself out last year publishing three new novels, because Safe Harbor just doesnít have the authorís usual magic. The ingredients that sparkled in her previous books - the ocean, the sisters, the troubled child - are present, but their blend is predictable and a bit flat.
Like most Luanne Rice novels, Safe Harbor takes place on the New England coast. Dana and Lily Underhill, two sisters who couldnít have been closer, spent their happy childhood on the Connecticut beaches. They both had artistic talent, but after college Dana chose to pursue her passion for art while Lily focused on being a wife and mother to her own two daughters, Quinn and Allie. As the novel begins, Dana has returned from her studio in France for the exhibition of her paintings that Lily had championed for the past few years. But sadly, Lily isnít here to see her sisterís success. A year ago, she and her husband Mike drowned while on a nighttime sail. Dana is now Quinn and Allieís guardian, but what does a lifelong vagabond painter know about being a parent to two grieving girls?
Fortunately Dana isnít alone. As college students, Dana and Lily earned extra money by giving sailing lessons, and one of their pupils was Sam Trevor, a lonely, fatherless boy who hero-worshipped the girls, especially Dana. Sam is now a successful marine biologist who is determined to rescue Dana, just as she saved his life when he fell overboard during a sailing race 21 years ago. That means helping Dana through the grief that has left her unable to paint since Lilyís death, and it also means taking on the challenge of Quinn, who is prickly and rebellious. Lilyís elder daughter knows more than sheís telling about her parentsí death, and she thinks Sam might be the one person to help her discover whether Lily and Mikeís deaths were truly accidental, or something more ominous. Despite the fact that Dana still looks at him like heís a little kid, Sam is determined to prove that heís loved her since childhood, and will always be there for her, no matter what happens.
Sam, younger half-brother of Joe Conner from Firefly Beach, is the best thing about Safe Harbor. Heís cute but slightly nerdy, loyal, generous and patient. He never wavers in his devotion to Dana, despite her attempts to push him away because of their age difference and her history of short-term love affairs. However, he emerges as more of a sweet puppy dog than a hero, and his romance with Dana never generates much passion.
In contrast, Mike, Lilyís husband, is not a well-developed character, so itís difficult to understand why Lily made certain decisions in the name of love for him. The secondary characters in general lack the complexity of those in other novels by this talented author.
There are few surprises throughout the somber plot. You know that Quinn is going to do something reckless because of her grief and anger, you know that there will be some kind of ocean denouement scene and you know that sisterhood will emerge triumphant. The tear-jerker moments - such as when Quinn keeps refilling the glass of water at her fatherís bedside table so it will look exactly as it did the night he died - feel more calculated than usual.
Luanne Riceís previous books contained unique plots or character traits that distinguished them from the pack - the heroineís mystical jewelry-making abilities in Dream Country, the fascinating hockey world of Summer Light, even the bizarre circumstances of the hero and heroineís first meeting in Firefly Beach. But Safe Harbor is as predictable and, well, safe as any standard womenís fiction. Thatís a shame because Luanne Rice is capable of transcending the genre.