This is the second "missing child" book I've read in a row, and as a mother of two, I'm not exactly thrilled with the theme. But if done right, it can provide a riveting story. The Courage Tree combines missing child and childhood illness plots - certainly a recipe for a prospective tear-jerk or seat-gripper, right? Well, not exactly. The first half of the book is unbearably slow, and too much of the story has already taken place before the novel opens. The novel improves as it goes along, but it never becomes the page-turner it should have been. Chamberlain is a talented writer, but this isn't her best effort.
Eight year old Sophie Donohue has a rare, life-threatening kidney disease. Recently, however, Sophie has shown remarkable improvement by participating in an experimental treatment study that uses an herb-based mixture called Herbalina. Sophie's progress has been so miraculous that her mother, Janine, has allowed Sophie to participate at a weekend Girl Scout camp. But when Janine goes to pick up her daughter at the weekend's conclusion, Sophie is not there. The car driven by one of the troop leaders, carrying Sophie and another girl, never arrived at the drop-off point.
Janine is frantic. Sophie must be found soon if she is to receive the next Herbalina treatment necessary to keep her alive. Just when Janine needs help, her parents and ex-husband add to the burden by blaming Sophie's disappearance on her decisions. They claim that Janine is putting Sophie's life in danger by choosing Herbalina over more traditional medical treatment, and they consider the decision to send her to Girl Scout camp to be irresponsible.
The only person who supports Janine is Lucas Trowell, the gardener on the estate where Janine and her parents live. Lucas is a gentle yet secretive man who spends most of his time in a custom-built, extravagant treehouse. Janine's parents warn her that Lucas' interest in Sophie is unnatural, but they don't know that Lucas and Janine have been lovers already for several months. As Janine searches desperately for her daughter, her ex-husband Joe investigates Lucas, and learns that the gardener is not at all who he claims to be. Meanwhile, Sophie's fate hangs in the balance, as the rapidly ailing girl crosses paths with an unusual woman who is hiding out in a desperate attempt to help her own troubled daughter.
The action in The Courage Tree takes place over a few days, starting with Sophie's disappearance. While it is more realistic for Janine and Lucas to already be involved instead of falling in love in the short time that Sophie is missing, it takes away an important element from the story. Without the spark of a romance, Janine and Lucas' story is flat. The entire first half of the novel is an excruciatingly slow set-up, involving too much re-telling of past events, including Janine's troubled childhood, her marriage to Joe, her stint as a helicopter pilot in the Gulf War and the discovery of Sophie's illness.
The novel's pace picks up in the second half, when the search for Sophie is narrowed, and the subplot about the other woman who is trying to save her daughter takes center stage. Janine is a fierce mother, and her determination to find Sophie even when no one believes she is alive is admirable. Too bad she fights for her daughter, but not for herself. Her parents, for no apparent reason, are oppressively critical of her and side with Joe against her at every turn. I wanted her to defend herself, but she just suffers in silence, accepting their harsh words as no less than she deserves.
Janine's ex-husband, Joe, is the most intriguing character in the book, and the only one who undergoes any sort of growth. Sophie's disappearance and the startling truths he learns about Lucas make him realize how inexcusable his behavior towards Janine has been. He's flawed but sympathetic, and by the end of the novel he redeems himself magnificently.
Chamberlain's style is somber to the point of being depressing. I disliked the first half of The Courage Tree so much that I actively avoided opportunities to read - imagine that! About halfway through, it improved enough to be considered an acceptable read. Frankly, Diane Chamberlain picked the wrong novel to use as a springboard into the hardcover big leagues. Other Chamberlain books are much better, showcasing the author's talent for creating memorable, realistic characters and tangling their lives up in surprising plot twists. Instead of buying The Courage Tree, I'd advise you to spend a third of the money and pick up one of Chamberlain's earlier paperbacks.