Luanne Rice probably has no greater fan than yours truly, which is why it concerns me to see the quality of her work slipping as she increases her output of predictable Women’s Fiction novels. True Blue isn’t at all a bad story, but much of the magic that marked Rice’s earlier books such as Dream Country and Summer Light is gone, replaced by clichéd characters and plots.
True Blue concludes a trio of books, along with Firefly Beach and Safe Harbor, that deal with the inhabitants of several interconnected coastal Connecticut communities. Rumer Larkin has built a successful veterinary practice and enjoys the company of her widowed father Sixtus, but she has never married. More than 18 years ago, her best friend and soul mate Zebulon Mayhew ran off with Rumer’s older sister Elizabeth, although he and Rumer were on the verge of making the transition from friends to lovers. Now Rumer learns that Zeb, who has fulfilled his dream of exploring the stars as a successful astronaut, is coming back to Hubbard’s Point along with his son, Michael. Zeb and Elizabeth divorced long ago, but Rumer still feels the pain of their betrayal.
Zeb knew soon after he married Elizabeth that he had made the worst mistake of his life, but his shame kept him in California, far away from Rumer, until a near-death experience in space made him realize he had to see her again and seek forgiveness. He also hopes that the trip East will enable him to bond with Michael, a spoiled and sulky 17 year old. Once he is face-to-face with Rumer, Zeb knows he wants more than absolution from her. And Michael makes an immediate, if uneasy, connection with Quinn Grayson, the prickly orphaned teenager who was introduced in Safe Harbor. Rumer tries to deny that her feelings for Zeb are still strong, because she’s not ready to open her heart again. But when Sixtus embarks on a dangerous journey, and the peace and quiet of the Point are shattered by a new neighbor who doesn’t respect the Point’s traditions, Rumer realizes she can count on Zeb. Perhaps the bond they shared as children can be recaptured.
I can’t believe that this over-utilized and clichéd plot - the man who loves one sister but marries the other in a frenzy of lust - comes from the pen of the same woman who wrote about a blind hockey player, a six-year old girl who sees angels, and a pair of lovers whose first encounter takes place when one’s father kills the other’s. Not only is it trite, it’s also one of my least favorite plots; I can’t get past the “ick factor” of knowing that the hero has made love to blood-related siblings, and I’m too close to my own sister to understand how the Larkin girls could let a man come between them. But Rice has utilized stock plots before and transformed the mundane into the extraordinary. True Blue, however, has little substance beyond the hero’s predictable pleas for forgiveness and the heroine’s inability to move beyond her hurt. Rumer is a talented vet and Zeb has had unique experiences as an astronaut, but their love story is bogged down in melodrama.
The secondary plots have mixed success. The adolescent couple, Michael and Quinn, have fine chemistry and sizzle - she throws fish heads at him when they first meet but their mutual antagonism is soon replaced by affection. However, the conflict between the nature-loving Hubbard’s Point natives and the obnoxious new neighbors who want to make dramatic changes on their property is too obvious and one-sided. The traditions of the community are so strong that they verge on exclusionary, and the neighbors’ plans are condemned because “that’s not how we do things here.” I’m a liberal tree-hugger myself, but I couldn’t help wishing that the issue had been presented in a more balanced manner.
True Blue is a hundred pages longer than it needs to be, given the amount of plot and action. Those 475 pages have some good material, primarily in the sections that focus on Michael, Quinn and Sixtus. But considering that Rice usually celebrates sisterhood, the central plot is a terrible disappointment.
Rice has settled into a conventional Women’s Fiction rut, but perhaps the new setting and plot promised in the preview of her next hardcover, to be released in February 2003, will demonstrate that she can recapture the unique charm of her earlier novels.