The Beach House

The Book Club

The Four Seasons

Girl in the Mirror

Skyward by Mary Alice Monroe
(Mira, $6.99, PG) ISBN 1-55166-700-2
After championing the plight of the sea turtle in The Beach House, Mary Alice Monroe turns her attention to saving wild birds in her latest novel. Skyward duplicates the same theme as its predecessor - outsider comes to the Carolina Coast, finds inner peace and true love while helping nature persevere - but its characters are not as memorable and the melodrama factor is dangerously high. Still, for earnest Womenís Fiction for the Tree-Hugger set, you canít ask for a better patron saint than Mary Alice Monroe.

The Coastal Carolina Center for Birds of Prey is fueled by the passion and dedication of its founder, Harris Henderson. Along with a cadre of dedicated volunteers, he rehabilitates wounded hawks, eagles and other raptors and releases them back into the wild when they are ready to fly. When his 5 year old daughter Marion is diagnosed with acute juvenile diabetes, single parent Harris realizes he needs help, which arrives in the form of Ella Majors, a former ER nurse who has moved all the way from Vermont to South Carolina to cure a serious case of burn-out.

No-nonsense, practical and organized Ella is determined to stabilize Marionís condition while maintaining a polite professional distance from the Hendersons. But she first finds herself becoming emotionally attached to Marion, and then, to her great embarrassment, falling in love with Harris - that is, when sheís not butting heads with him. Their relationship is followed with great interest by the Centerís staff, including Lijah, an elderly Gullah man keeping vigil over a wounded eagle and Brady, a belligerent teenager who volunteers at the Center as community service restitution. But Harris isnít truly free to follow his heart, and Ella has to decide whether she is risking too much to stay with him.

Mary Alice Monroeís heart is in the right place throughout this earnest novel. She is obviously concerned about the plight of the nationís wild birds, and you can forgive her frequent use of flying metaphors. But sometimes the preaching becomes too heavy-handed and the characters lapse into didactic monologue. Lijah, especially, is given to spouting wise aphorisms so often that he becomes more icon than character.

Harris starts out as a humorless workaholic, but his interactions with Ellaís no-bullshit-tolerance attitude force him to open up and mellow out. After a period of initial mistrust, their romance builds slowly and gently, but the introduction of an Evil Other Woman late in the story sends the plot careening irrevocably into the realm of melodrama. Monroeís earlier novel, The Girl in the Mirror, was filled with fun, campy melodrama, but here it deadens a promising plot and makes Harris look like a cad and a fool. Overall, the dynamics among the major characters are predictable, lacking the complex insights of Monroeís best novels, including the relationships between mother and daughter in Beach House and among sisters in The Four Seasons.

If Iím sounding too critical, itís only because I know Monroe is capable of writing a novel that doesnít take the easy way out. Still, Skyward has much to offer, including a surprisingly charitable view of vultures. The novel makes fine beach reading - you can lie in the sand and imagine that the squawking gulls are graceful raptors who have been healed by the skilled hands of Harris Henderson. And donít be surprised if the book inspires you to make a donation to the real South Carolina Center for Birds of Prey. If she ever wants a career change, Monroe would make a hell of a grant writer. I canít imagine the foundation or corporation who could say no to her.

--Susan Scribner

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