|After a career that has included truly moving novels such as Firefly Beach and Summer Light, Luanne Rice has gotten stuck in a rut of creating cookie-cutter melodramas with beautiful beach settings and hokey dialogue that actors on the most cheesy soap opera wouldn’t recite. Yet somewhere in the morass there are a few genuine emotions poking through, and I couldn’t help being touched by a few of the scenes in her latest novel, What Matters Most.
The novel begins with a prologue from 23 years ago when a great love was born. James Sullivan and Kathleen Murphy grew up together in an Irish Catholic orphanage and were inseparable from the day their cribs were placed next to each other. As teenagers they vowed to stay together forever. But one day Kathleen’s dream of having her parents claim her came true, and she and James never saw each other again.
The action then shifts to the present day, immediately after the conclusion of 2006’s Sandcastles. Bernie Sullivan, better known as Sister Bernadette Ignatius, mother superior of the Star of the Sea convent, is on her way to Ireland accompanied by Tom Kelly, the man who has loved her since childhood. Bernie and Tom first came to Ireland more than twenty years ago, as Bernie struggled to reconcile her love for Tom with her calling to serve God. They became lovers briefly, but Bernie became pregnant and gave up her newborn baby boy for adoption before deciding to take her final vows. All these years Tom has served as groundskeeper at the convent, respecting Sister Bernadette’s position and never loving another woman. After the dramatic events of Sandcastles, Bernie has decided she needs to track down her son, and the loyal Tom goes with her.
Bernie and Tom’s search is thwarted by several forces, but with the help of Tom’s Irish cousins and Bernadette’s fellow nuns, they are finally brought face-to-face with their twenty-three year old son, with unexpected results. Bernie and Tom are forced to redefine their relationship. Are they lovers once again? Parents? Bernie is consumed with guilt about the impact of the choices she made twenty years ago, while Tom is determined to help true love conquer all – if not for himself, then for his son this time.
As usual, Rice slathers on the melodrama, along with countless platitudes such as Love Conquers All, Love is All That Matters, etc. Her characters’ dialogue sounds more like a New Age convention than a real conversation; the men, especially, are so emotionally open and verbal that you wonder what planet they came from. (It’s hard not to contrast them to Nora Roberts’ male characters, who manage to sound realistic yet romantic at the same time.) Plus Rice’s characters whisper so often and so dramatically to each other that it’s surprising that anyone ever hears anyone else. The level of banality is disappointing as well. Here’s a love scene between Honor and John Sullivan, the hero and heroine of Sandcastles who make several appearances in this novel: “When they closed the door behind them they were alone together. Honor knew that she had never wanted anyone, or anything, more than this. Her husband undressed her on the bed they had bought the year they got married. Her body ached with desire, his hand caressed her. She knew his touch by heart, yet it surprised her every time...Making love, she and John were together forever.” It sounds as if Rice wrote that scene with a copy of “Romance Clichés for Beginners” at her side.
Yet despite the hokiness, you’d have to be made of stone not to be affected by Sister Bernie as she reminisces about the too-short time she spent with her newborn son and deals with the unanticipated consequences of her decision to give him up. Her faith is strong, yet she loves Tom Kelly as well. Readers may wonder how Rice will settle this unusual love triangle, and in fact the resolution is bittersweet and difficult to accept.
The story of James and Kathleen has a fairy tale quality that makes it initially compelling yet ultimately unconvincing. They claim to be in love forever, but since they spend the vast majority of the novel separated by thousands of miles, it’s hard to know if their unequivocal true love can survive adult reality.
Luanne Rice fans know what they’re getting by now – the literary equivalent of a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie or a Thomas Kincade painting, this time with a bit of Thorn Birds plot thrown in for good measure, along with a good helping of beautiful scenes of the Irish and Eastern American seaboard. Readers who want depth and complexity in their love stories are advised to look elsewhere.