Breaking the Silence

The Courage Tree

Cypress Point

Kiss River by Diane Chamberlain
(Mira, $23.95, PG) ISBN 1-55166-664-2
I always feel guilty that I canít fully embrace Diane Chamberlainís books. Theyíre well-written, thoughtful womenís fiction that display the authorís understanding of human dynamics gained from her former career as a social worker. Unfortunately they are also too gloomy for me, and the featured romance rarely has the requisite spark. Kiss River, a follow-up to a much earlier novel, Keeper of the Light, is typical Chamberlain - which means it kept my interest but wonít go on my keeper shelf.

Gina Higgins arrives in Kiss River, North Carolina, with a mission. She has traveled all the way from Seattle in a run-down car to locate the Kiss River Lighthouse. Much to her dismay, she discovers that the lighthouse collapsed ten years ago during a hurricane, and that its lens lies somewhere in the ocean. An agitated Gina tries to convince the Kiss River natives that they should search for and recover the lens, but she meets strong resistance. Alec OíNeill, one of the townís most prominent citizens, is vehemently opposed to the idea. The lighthouse is tied to bad memories of his wife, Annie, who died shortly before the hurricane, and he tells Gina he will do everything he can to thwart her plan.

Gina is fortunate to be taken in by Alecís grown children, Lacey and Clay, who live in the former lighthouse keeperís house. Lacey is a talented stained glass artist whose many humanitarian gestures contrast sharply with her recklessly promiscuous behavior. Clay is a grieving, guilt-stricken widower. Gina comes to care for both of them, and is attracted to Clay despite her general mistrust of men. But she canít let herself get distracted from her task. She has to raise the lighthouse lens so that, thousands of miles away, a little girl can have a chance for health and family. Ginaís link to the lighthouseís secrets is a diary that once belonged to a 15 year old girl named Bess who lived in Kiss River sixty years ago. In just a few months during World War II, Bess found love and danger, only to leave her home abruptly in fear and shame.

The novelís major weakness is Gina herself. Itís hard to feel sympathy for a character who waltzes into a new town, demands that the townspeople take a major step that theyíve avoided for ten years, and sulks because she doesnít get her way. She wonít tell anybody the truth about why she needs to see the lighthouse lens, including Lacey and Clay who are generous enough to let a total stranger share their house. Eventually the reader comes to understand Ginaís desperation, but by the time the secrets are revealed, the novel is almost over. The romance between Gina and Clay isnít convincing - they gain comfort from each other, but thereís very little joy in their relationship and it doesnít feel like true love.

The novel alternates chapters set in the present day with excerpts from Bessí 1942 diary, and frankly the teenager is a much more compelling character than Gina. Sheís impetuous and naÔve, but the reader feels for her as the realities of war make her grow up much quicker than she should have to.

Kiss River is the sequel to 1992ís Keeper of the Light, which told the story of Alec and his current wife Olivia. I donít recall reading it - who can remember every novel they read more than 10 years ago? - but that didnít hinder my understanding of Kiss River. Chamberlain is also planning a novel about Lacey OíNeill, who learns devastating secrets about her mother Annie in this novel that cause her to examine her reckless behavior.

As a character study, Kiss River works. As a novel that engages the reader in characters to care about, it falters. Still, if you like serious Womenís Fiction and tangled relationship dynamics, Diane Chamberlain should be at the top of your list.

--Susan Scribner

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