Angel Falls

On Mystic Lake

Summer Island

Distant Shores by Kristin Hannah
(Ballantine, $22.95, PG) ISBN 0-345-45071-X
When I read a book for review, I write notes on a little piece of paper to remind me what impressed and/or disturbed me about the novel. I finished Kristin Hannah’s latest hardcover, Distant Shores, without making a single note. There was very little to say about this bland, predictable story of a married couple who separate and then reunite. And that’s sad, because the talented Kristin Hannah once created memorable characters and scenes in books such as The Enchantment and Once in Every Life. With the exception of her last novel, Summer Island, Hannah’s venture into hardcover Women’s Fiction has been a huge disappointment to this reviewer.

Elizabeth and Jackson Shore have drifted apart in the 24 years of their marriage. Outwardly, everything looks fine. Jack works as a sports reporter for a local television station, and the couple live in a beautiful house on the Oregon coast that Elizabeth has lovingly renovated and decorated. They have two well-adjusted daughters who are now in college in Washington D.C. But look beyond the surface and you’ll see big problems. Jack, once a professional football star, is bitter about his career, which plummeted when he injured himself and then developed an addiction to painkillers. Elizabeth can’t quite figure out why she is so unhappy, but she knows she is tired of holding the family together at the cost of her own needs and dreams. She was once a talented painter, but her skills have atrophied from disuse.

So when Jack gets the chance of a lifetime to reclaim his glory days as the host of a national sports show in New York, Elizabeth can only see that once again, she is supposed to drop everything and follow him, forsaking her beloved house and ocean view. After a family tragedy, Elizabeth decides that she has to Find Herself before it’s too late. She moves back to Oregon and tries to rediscover her artistic muse, with the help of her best friend and a support group for “passionless” women. But the choice to pursue her dreams may have cost her the love of the only man she’s ever wanted.

Jack is thrilled to find himself back in the limelight, and at first he believes that Life in the Fast Lane is all he ever wanted. But as women start throwing themselves at him, Jack realizes that success isn’t as much fun without his “Birdie” beside him to share in the joys. So can the “distant Shores” find their way back to each other before it is too late?

Distant Shores would make a fine Lifetime Movie, but it was the most clichéd, maudlin piece of Women’s Fiction I have encountered this year. Elizabeth, a.k.a. “Birdie,” spends way too much time whining and moaning about how lost and miserable she is. She resents Jack for the fact that she is reduced to the cheerleading role, but she can’t generate any concrete ideas or plans to move forward. Her passivity grates on Jack and on the reader.

Jack is pretty self-centered as well, but at least he has more of a spark. After losing his fame and fortune, he battles to get back on top, and it’s rewarding to watch his hard work pay off. I wish Hannah had focused more on the details of his job as a sports commentator; it would have been much more engaging than Elizabeth’s endless ruminations. Also, his earlier infidelities are mentioned but never discussed in depth. I would have been more interested to learn how the couple got past that breaking point than how they survived Elizabeth’s mid-life crisis.

The book is full of heavy handed symbolism, starting with Elizabeth’s nickname. Just in case you don’t get it, her father tells her, “Birdie, if you don’t spread your wings, you’ll plumb forget how to fly.” The reader is treated to many of those Hallmark greeting card sentiments that substitute for authentic dialogue.

Elizabeth’s slutty best friend (note to authors: giving the heroine a promiscuous best friend is not funny or daring anymore, just predictable) provides encouragement, but Elizabeth also finds solace from an unlikely source towards the end of the novel. These scenes, along with a few surprising plot twists, make the last hundred pages of the book much more engrossing. But by then I had ceased to care whether Elizabeth a.k.a. Birdie flew high or crash landed into the Pacific.

If you like melodramatic Women’s Fiction, then Distant Shores will appeal to you. But I need stronger characters and a more intriguing plot than this weepy novelization of “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Please Ms. Hannah - give up the tear-jerkers. Put some bite or some fantasy elements back in your novels and all will be forgiven.

--Susan Scribner

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