|Angels All Over Town, Luanne Rice’s first novel, was originally published in 1985. I remember loving it as a young college graduate, and more than 20 years later I was thrilled it see it was being re-released. Although the book is somewhat dated, re-reading it reminded me of the reasons I was once such a big fan of this author – and why I’ve been increasingly disillusioned with her recent sentimental and formulaic novels.
Many of the themes that would become Rice’s trademarks, notably the close relationships among sisters, are apparent from this early work, and the East Coast seaside setting is familiar as well. Una Cavan watches out for her two younger sisters as she has since childhood, when it was her job as the eldest to help their mother retrieve their father from neighborhood bars. The Cavan girls are currently spending the summer together in Newport, enjoying casual relationships with bronzed foreign sailors, when Una gets a surprise visit from her father, who died of cancer several months ago. Unsure whether she’s dreaming, hallucinating or engaging in wishful thinking, Una nevertheless sees her father’s appearance as a sign that she needs to make some changes in her life. The closeness she shares with Lily and Margot will always be a constant, but is she really happy acting on a soap opera instead of being a serious (but starving) theater actress like her fellow former Julliard classmates? Can she continue meaningless physical relationships that don’t bring any emotional satisfaction?
Then the one thing Una always depended on starts to fall apart. Middle sister Lily falls in love and quickly marries a wealthy physician who is condescending and overly possessive. Una rarely gets the chance to see Lily alone, and their indestructible bond is seriously threatened. Youngest sister Margo also finds true love, and although this relationship doesn’t estrange her from Una, it’s another sign that the sisters have lost their exclusive intimacy. Fortunately, through Margo’s fiancé, Una meets Sam Chamberlain, a handsome oceanographer. Una starts to believe that her fledgling affair with Sam might be different from the casual ones of the past, but she’s afraid to trust her own feelings. It might take more ghostly intervention to help Una realize what’s really in her heart.
Reading this book made me realize how much more conservative Rice (and our society) has become in the past 25 years. Forget the references to Betamax, Princess Di and the World Trade Centers – the most glaring anachronism in the book is the Cavan girls’ no-apologies approach to sex. All three girls are involved with sailors when the book begins, and Una has several short-lived relationships before she finds emotional compatibility with Sam. In Rice’s more recent books, the heroines are usually as celibate as nuns until they find Mr. Right, and sex only takes place when it is a meaningful, mystical expression of True Love.
This lack of sentimentality makes Una’s ultimate romance that much more satisfying. Unlike the gooey, Hallmark Hall of Fame love stories that populate Rice’s more recent work, Una and Sam hit a few bumps along the road to a happy ending. Una doesn’t know how to handle a relationship that feels so different from the way she has always interacted with other men, most notably her father, and Sam has to deal with the insecurities of dating a daytime television star who is occasionally fodder for tabloid gossip. Contrast that to the long-suffering hero in Summer’s Child or many of Rice’s other couples, whose perfect love is only hindered by external circumstances.
Twenty years ago, the romance novel landscape was very different from today. Nora Roberts was just starting to break into the single title market, and there were few options around for women who wanted an intelligent, engaging modern romance. Angels All Over Town was a rare treat back then. Both the literary landscape and Rice have changed in the past two decades. Now numerous contemporary romances and women’s fiction novels are available. Rice’s newer books push more emotionally manipulative buttons with the addition of terminal illnesses and Very Special children, and her characters have become less complex. Not surprisingly, her book sales have increased accordingly. Reading Angels All Over Town makes me wistful for Rice’s early work, but I can’t begrudge her success. We’d all like to live in a world of beaches and sisterhood, and she is the expert at bringing that fantasy to life.