Dancing at the Harvest Moon

Candles on Bay Street
by K.C. McKinnon
(Ballantine, $6.99, G) ISBN 0-449-00555-0
When I saw that "Mrs. Giggles," a brutally honest reviewer, gave Candles on Bay Street an unprecedented grade of 100, I had to read it for myself. After breezing through this brief novel, I'm wondering what Mrs. Giggles saw that I missed. Like McKinnon's "debut" novel, Dancing at the Harvest Moon (she has written several other novels under her real name, Cathie Pelletier), Candles impressed me as a pretty but ultimately unremarkable book.

Sam Thibodeau, the veterinarian for the small northern Maine town of Fort Kent, narrates the story. It begins promisingly enough:

She was the childhood sweetheart I wanted to marry, but didn't. I blame General Motors for this. In 1982, when their new line of sleek Corvettes came off the assembly line, Bobby Langford bought one, a shiny gold, the color of the sun. And he looked so good sitting behind the wheel that Dee Dee Michaud fell head over heels in love with him, instead of me.

The free spirited Dee Dee ran away with Bobby that year and Sam never saw her again. Instead, he married Lydia, a vet school classmate, and they set up their practice. But now, 15 years later, Dee Dee unexpectedly moves back to Fort Kent. Bobby is long gone, but Dee Dee now has a nine-year old son, Trooper. She settles into her mother's old house and establishes a candle-making business.

Okay, it's not what you're thinking. Sam still cherishes the memories he has of growing up with Dee Dee, but he doesn't even consider being unfaithful to the perfectly lovable Lydia. Well, he doesn't consider it very seriously. Besides, when Dee Dee and Trooper come over to dinner, his wife and his ex-childhood sweetheart hit it off like gangbusters, leaving Sam and Trooper behind in a cloud of girl talk. So everybody is happy, and Sam's life looks full of promise. Until he comes to the realization that Dee Dee's return to Fort Kent at this point in time is no coincidence. Dee Dee has several serious favors to ask both her oldest friend and her new best friend. The favors will force Sam and Lydia to question how far they are willing to go in the name of friendship and love, and lead to anger, grief and, finally, acceptance of what can't be changed.

Candles on Bay Street definitely has its merits. It's a valentine to the beauty of the people, lifestyle and scenery of McKinnon's former home, northern Maine. The charming drawings at the start of each chapter give the setting even more prominence. Sam's simple narrative feels like it was actually written by a man, and his relationship with Trooper rings true as adult and boy bond together through shared actions and infrequent but potent conversations.

However, the first person narrative keeps the reader at a distance from the women in Sam's life, and as a result the novel's emotional impact is muted. Both Dee Dee and Lydia are saints - one fiery, one dulcet - and the reader never fully connects with either of them. After that memorable opening line, the narrative settles into a sweet but predictable story.

Dee Dee's mantra, "Every time you light a candle, an angel is born," along with the portrayal of small town life, makes this novel feel like It's A Wonderful Life, by way of Love Story. The last 25 pages are guaranteed to wring tears out of even the hardest heart. But my tears were solely for Sam, not Dee Dee or Lydia. A stronger novel would have provided more complete characterizations for all of the major players, not just the narrator. Such an accomplishment would have overcome my ingrained cynicism and made this truly a novel to remember. With all due respect to a fellow reviewer, I disagree with Mrs. Giggles' raves. I found Candles on Bay Street a quick, moderately touching but disposable read that would make a good "Hallmark Hall of Fame" presentation to watch on a cold Sunday evening. Not bad, but not, in my opinion, a keeper.

--Susan Scribner

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