Coast Road

Having Faith

Heart of the Night

Lake News

Shades of Grace

A Woman's Place

The Vineyard by Barbara Delinsky
(Simon & Schuster, $25, PG) ISBN 0-684-86484-3
Unlike Lake News and A Woman's Place, Barbara Delinsky's latest novel doesn't tackle any social issues. But The Vineyard is a delightfully intimate story of women and families, and one that ended all too soon for this reader. Delinsky is simply the best and most consistent women's fiction writer in today's crowded market.

Olivia Jones and her ten-year old daughter Tess are a small but tight family unit. Olivia's mother first neglected and then abandoned her, leaving Olivia with a penchant for getting involved with the wrong kind of men. That included including Tess' father, now dead, whose family refuses to acknowledge Tess' parentage. Olivia may be on her own, but that doesn't stop her from dreaming that one day her mother will come looking for her, or that some long-lost extended family member will claim the duo.

So when Olivia has a chance to spend the summer at Asquonset, a Rhode Island vineyard, helping the wealthy owner Natalie Seebring write her memoirs, she enthusiastically packs her bags. Olivia restores photographs, and she feels as if she already knows Natalie from the Seebring family photographs she has worked on. Ever the dreamer, Olivia imagines being part of a large, happy and wealthy family.

The reality is far less ideal, however. Natalie, a recent widow, is estranged from her two grown children because of her sudden announcement that she is marrying Carl, the long-time vineyard manager. Many of the Asquonset vineyard staff are quitting because they too think Natalie is being disloyal to her deceased husband, Alexander, an outgoing and charming man who seemed to be the driving force behind the vineyard's success. Carl's son, Simon, is a moody and taciturn man who dislikes Olivia and Tess on sight because they remind him of his beloved wife and daughter who were killed in a boating accident four years ago.

As Natalie narrates her story, Olivia realizes that the matron has been in love with Carl for more than fifty years. She's full of questions that threaten her original starry-eyed view of the Seebring family. Why did Natalie marry Alexander? What happened to the third Seebring child who was in many of the old pictures but is no longer mentioned? Why aren't Natalie's son and daughter involved with Asquonset? Olivia has questions about her own future too. What will she do when this summer job is over, and she has to come up with enough money to pay for the special school that Tess, a bright child with learning disabilities, so desperately needs? And why is she attracted to Simon, who obviously resents her very existence?

Delinsky is a master at creating realistic yet sympathetic characters, but she takes a risk with a heroine like Olivia. Although she has done an admirable job as a single mother, she refuses to face reality about her own mother and insists on idealizing Natalie. She's a change from the typical strong-willed Delinsky heroine. Yet the author provides her with many positive attributes too -- primarily her loving behavior towards Tess, whose school failure has made her sulky and defensive, not always the easiest child to appreciate. And Olivia grows and matures, so that in the end she is able to accept her situation without living in a fantasy world.

And The Vineyard is anything but a fantasy. There's something refreshingly down-to-earth and New England-like about the whole story. Although Natalie has loved Carl for decades, she didn't languish or bemoan her fate when they were separated. She made something of her marriage to Alexander and worked hard to support the vineyard. Now, at the ripe old age of 76, a second chance for happiness with Carl has finally appeared, and she's going for it, the opinion of her children be damned. Similarly, the romance between Olivia and Simon is poignant but practical. Olivia gradually brings Simon out of his protective shell, but she realizes that his commitment to nurturing the fragile vineyard grapes will sometimes limit their time together.

Natalie's children and Olivia have to learn that parents are flawed individuals who do the best they can under the circumstances they are given. By the end of the novel, Olivia has started to forgive her own errant mother, and Natalie's children have extended tentative olive branches.

If this were a novel by another author, the mystery woman Olivia once glimpsed in one of Natalie's pictures who resembled her would have turned out to be a long-lost relative, just waiting to claim Olivia and Tess. But in Delinsky's skilled hands, the solution isn't tied up neatly in a bow. Olivia finds a family, but it's not the one she envisioned in her fantasies. It's a real family, with anger and grief accompanying the love and affection. It's one that the reader will grow to care about and wish she could spend more time getting to know.

--Susan Scribner

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