Fortunate Harbor:
A Happiness Key Novel

by Emilie Richards
(Mira, $13.95, PG) ISBN 13-978-0-7783-2770-7
***
When I read, reviewed and recommended Emilie Richards’ last book, Happiness Key, I didn’t realize that she was setting up a series of novels featuring the denizens of said place, a little spit of land outside Palmetto Grove, a mythical Florida town.  But having enjoyed the stories of the four women neighbors who, against all odds, became fast friends, I happily purchased the second installment.  Unfortunately, Fortunate Harbor, while a perfectly acceptable women’s fiction novel, does not measure up to its predecessor.  The circumstances faced by the protagonists in this book simply are not as interesting.  Let me explain why.

Tracy Deloche, the main character and owner of Happiness Key and its five small cottages, did a whole lot of growing in the first book.  The spoiled trophy wife of a rich California developer who had fallen afoul of the law, Tracy had watched her whole life collapse with CJ Craimer’s empire.  All she had left was this piece of property and all she wanted to do was unload it so that she could resume the life to which she felt entitled. 

But the Florida real estate bust and the local environmental group had made this impossible.  So Tracy was forced to reinvent herself, to become a much better person.  Watching this process was quite interesting, much more so than her circumstances in this book –  dealing with the reappearance of her shifty ex-husband and with her on again, off again romance with the local environmental lawyer.

 In the first book, fifty-six year old waitress, Wanda Grey, was watching her marriage dissolve and the fact that she got involved in “phone romance” didn’t help.  The story of how she and Kenny found each other and reestablished their relationship was more compelling that the challenges she faces opening a pie shop in book two.

The third friend, Janya Kapur, is a young Indian woman whose family forced her into an arranged marriage because of a scandal that was not of her doing.  Janya found herself in a strange culture with a strange man, trying to make a life.  Her friendship with the ill-assorted inhabitants of Happiness Key helped her make the transition and come to appreciate Rishi, the man she had married.  Theirs was a sweet story of two people who discover how to love and was a bit more interesting than the problems the couple face due to social and familial pressures about starting a family.

The final friend, Alice, was at the center of a mystery in Happiness Key and was nearly the victim of her psychopathic son-in-law.  Richards includes mysterious doings in Fortunate Harbor. The first centers on the woman who rents the fifth house on the Key.  Dana Turner clearly has secrets and the other women, incurably curious, seek to ferret them out.  There is also the mystery of why CJ has come to Florida; Tracy is pretty convinced he is up to no good.   But these mysteries are not as exciting as those in the first book.

Finally, Fortunate Harbor is simply not as romantic as its predecessor.  The romance between Tracy and environmental lawyer Marsh Egan developed nicely in book one, but I suppose to sustain the tension, it went awry almost from page one of the second book.  By the time they worked things out, I was annoyed with both of them.  The secondary romance between Dana and the handyman Pete was pleasant but fraught with deception, a potential problem.

As I look back on what I have written, it occurs to me that this is a strange review.  I have mostly described what happened in Book One of the proposed series and made unfavorable comparisons to what happens in Book Two.  But the fact is, comparisons are inevitable when an author follows the same cast of characters into new circumstances.  I would guess it is pretty hard to sustain the same level of interest over more than one book if what an author is about is primarily character and relationship development.  

One way to do this is to “up front” a different character and relationship in the second installment; this is what Nora Roberts does so well.  But Richards chose another path, that of simply following the lives of Tracy, Wanda, Janya, and Alice, adding some complications and some problems and some new characters.  Her characters grew and changed a lot in Happiness Key.  In Fortunate Harbor, they didn’t.

Still, if Richards chooses to continue this series, I will probably continue to read it.  I like these women; I enjoy their unlikely friendship.  I sort of want to know what will come next.   

--Jean Mason


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