THE SILVER BOAT
With twenty best selling novels to her credit, it is not surprising that Luanne Rice knows how to spin a good yarn. But to say no more than that is to damn with faint praise the well-honed skills of a writer whose sense of place rivals that of the best in her trade. In her most recent book, THE SILVER BOAT, Rice brings the landscape of Martha’s Vineyard to life in delightful detail, bringing the reader the scent of the wild roses, the crash of the waves, the song of water birds, the texture of warm sand and the salty tang of sea air.
No less alive are the sisters in her stiory, Dar, Rory and Delia McCarthy, around whom Rice weaves an engaging tale of love, loss and redemption. Gathered for the last time at the home where they spent all their summers–a place of such magic they call it The Other World– they add a huge measure of love to each other’s lives while dealing with unresolved problems that date back to their Irish-born boat builder father whose disappearance still haunts them. Dar, an artist whose graphic novels center on this loss, cannot commit herself to living with the man in her life. Rory cannot let go of her philandering husband. Delia cannot relinquish her role of care giver in order to tend to her own needs.
Rice manipulates with dexterity the complex ties that bind the sisters to each, to their families and the land. She surrounds Dar, Rory and Delia with characters whose quirks and qualities help balance what could easily become a bathetic tale—Pete, Delia’s meth addicted son whose struggles rings true; his father, Jim, who chafes at his Delia’s intense parenting style ; Dar’s admirably supportive lover Andy, and Harrison, an off-the- grid nouveau poor guy whose zaniness is so endearing one wishes rice would devote a whole book to him.
Deciding whether or not to let go of the summer house, the memories and hopes of their youth is a wrenching process for the sisters. Coping with the realities of overdue taxes, trying to find out their reasons for their father’s desertion, struggling to keep family ties intact, the most significant aspect of their lives is how they care for each other and for their friends. They cry and laugh together, share memorable feasts, travel to their father’s birthplace and back without ever doubting that love is what really counts in the end. Old fashioned as this might seem—there are the faintest faint echoes of Barbara Pym and Rosamonde Pilcher in this story—in an era when so much fiction writers rely on shock value as an attention grabber, there is much to be said about the courage of a writer whose focus is the high quality of her work.
Rice’s graceful storytelling s is not unlike the seemingly effortless performance of a great ballet dancer who gives the impression that defying gravity is supremely easy. Creating credible characters whose dialogue is pitch perfect, placing them in a memorable setting and letting them test the confines of an intriguing plot that is no easy task. Rice pulls it off, making this one of the most enjoyable books I have read in years.
I wanted to like Margot Berwin’s first novel, Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire. The author took a leap of faith when she left a career in advertising for an uncertain future in fiction writing. That Julia Roberts bought the movie rights to the novel seemed to be a a ringing endorsement of Berwin’s faith in her own talent. Besides, the book has one of those red and gold covers that resemble nothing as much as a box of fine chocolate filled with delicious surprises. I really wanted to find this rambling story praiseworthy and there may be room for praise in n the idea of mixing magical realism, New Age platitudes, botany, love and greed. There is a certain charm in some of the principals in Berwin’s cast of characters, Lila Nova, a recently divorced advertising executive from Manhattan; the mysterious Armand, a girthy Colombian with teeth shaped liked Chiclets and a Laundromat filled with tropical plants; Lila’s coworker, a recovering surfer who goes by the improbable moniker of Kodiak Starr–Keanu Reeves, call Julia– smokes a powerful amount of pot and talks trash. Add a Fabioesque Huichol quasi-shaman, drag the lot to the Yucatan Peninsula and you have elements that Isabel Allende could have transmuted into something better than a bubbly beach read.
Unfortunately, the magic never happens. For all that she delivers herself of ponderous insights, Lila fails to become real to the reader who learns only that she is blond and thin enough to be trundled through a steamy stretch of jungle in the muscular arms of the Huichol heartthrob. Her search for love, money and self-realization reads like a travelogue. Her guru Armand, he of the Chiclet teeth and mystical pronouncements–no doubt to be played by Alfredo Molina– sounds like a mix of Deepak Chopra, Doctor Phil and Oprah, a rather insalubrious combination for a person of Colombian extraction. The countrysexual–the author’s own word coinage, meaning the opposite of metrosexual–proves to be something else altogether and the most memorable characteristic of His Dudeness Kodiak is that he thinks that Mexico is a South American country.
I slogged through the jungle, braved snakes mosquitoes and scorpions with these folks. I endured pseudo-Huichol shamanistic displays of affection. I tried to commune with the spirit of the Pantera onca, Lila‘s animal totem, and found it to be a cardboard cat. I closed the book hoping that Berwin will do better next time. She does a tremendous job with botanic trivia. As gardening book, this could have been intriguing.