Cloud Nine

 
Follow the Stars Home
by Luanne Rice
(Bantam, $19.95, PG ) ISBN 0-553-11073-X
****
There appears to be a trend in women's fiction towards three-hankie reads, with terminal illness or other health crises as the main tear-inducing theme. Maybe it's a reaction against all of those wry, ironic Bridget Jones' Diary clones, or maybe it's the literary equivalent of Touched by an Angel. Luanne Rice's novels have become increasingly sentimental, moving away from the cosmopolitan relationship novels she favored early in her career. I'm not a big fan of this trend, but as long as authors as talented as Rice are participating, I guess I'll come along for the ride.

Follow the Stars Home tackles the gut-wrenching topic of parenting a child with severe disabilities. Dianne Robbins always dreamed of a having a big family and relishing the mommy role. Taught the carpentry trade by her father, she established herself professionally in her small Connecticut town as the maker of exquisite wooden dollhouses. One date with the town's new pediatrician, Alan McIntosh, was promising, but then Dianne was quickly swept off her feet by Alan's rugged seafaring brother, Tim. She chose the "dark" brother over the "light" and soon had cause to regret it. As soon as prenatal tests confirmed that the child Dianne was carrying was seriously deformed, Tim split, unable to accept a child who was less than perfect.

Now, almost twelve years later, Dianne gets by with help from her mother Lucinda, the town librarian. Her daughter, Julia, has spina bifida and Retts syndrome, a condition similar to autism. She cannot walk, talk, hold things or eat solid food, and her limbs are misshapen and stunted. She has had 13 surgeries since birth, and is not expected to live many more years because her underdeveloped organs cannot support her growing body. Dianne is an almost saintly mother. She loves Julia fiercely and rarely complains about her fate. She saves all of her anger for Alan, who reminds her of the spineless brother who left.

The catalyst for change is a twelve year old girl named Amy Brooks. Her mother Tess has been mired in depression for years, ever since Amy's father died in a boating accident, and the household is terrorized by Buddy, Tess's abusive boyfriend. Amy loves to hang around Dr. McIntosh's office, the one place she feels safe. One day, Alan has a brainstorm -- he wonders if putting Dianne, Amy and Julia together could be beneficial to all three. Dianne will have some part-time help and a chance to focus her maternal instincts on a more responsive child, Amy will have a mother substitute, and Julia will have a friend. Alan is happy to see a strong bond form between the three females, but he is surprised to find an additional positive side effect. These new relationships allow Dianne to finally realize that, although she once chose the wrong brother, the right one is still waiting for her.

The poignancy factor in Follow the Stars Home is off the scale. Just imagine eleven years of loving a child who can never say "I love you" or hug you. If Julia's condition doesn't grab you by the heart, add in the gradual recovery of a puppy who is beaten by Buddy in the name of "training" but later rescued by Amy. Then factor in Alan, the sensitive beta hero who has worshipped Dianne for years and finds a way to make her dreams come true with a grand, generous gesture. I'll defy anyone reading this to remain untouched.

Frankly, there are some times when Alan and Dianne seem almost too good to be true. Fortunately, the novel is populated by other characters whose complex personalities give it some spice. Amy Brooks is the primary example, as is Lucinda Robbins. The puppy and Dianne's cat Stella have important roles to play in the story. Even Tim McIntosh is given some depth -- true, he's a total rat for abandoning his wife and daughter, but Rice unerringly portrays the way he has rationalized his weak behavior, and he winds up more worthy of pity than scorn.

Follow the Stars Home is not subtle about its advice to cherish love and life each possible moment. It implores readers to move beyond their own pain and to reach out to others. As Lucinda says, "The biggest mistake any of us can make is thinking that love is a feeling, an emotion. It's not that at all. It's an action, a way of life." By the time you reach the final, surprising chapter in this novel, you will be ready for a great, big hug from and for anyone near and dear to you. Don't be surprised if you end up using their shirt sleeve to wipe away your tears.

--Susan Scribner


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