In Whiskey Island, Emilie Richards forsakes the exotic Australian setting of her last novel, Beautiful Lies, for the romantic shores of...Cleveland? Oh well, love can be found anywhere, and Richards does a fine job at portraying the checkered past and current richness of the city once known as the "Mistake by the Lake. "
The Donaghue family has owned Cleveland's Whiskey Island Saloon for generations -- but the long-overdue homecoming of Casey and Peggy Donaghue almost turns to tragedy when they are accosted by carjackers in the saloon parking lot. They are rescued by Niccolo Andreani, a troubled stranger with a strong sense of responsibility. They also receive unexpected aid from a mysterious, anonymous figure who vanishes as quickly as he appeared.
The reunion marks the first time in ten years that the three Donaghue sisters have been together at Whiskey Island. Oldest sister Megan is the dependable caretaker who has held the family together ever since the girls' mother died and their charming but reckless father disappeared. But rebellious Casey, who wanted nothing to do with the Saloon, fled to Chicago and eventually became a child welfare worker. She has returned with a quiet young girl in tow, whom she claims to be babysitting. Youngest sister Peggy has
allegedly come home for a short visit, but she shows no sign of returning to Ohio University, where she is hoping to enter medical school.
Megan has put so much effort into taking care of everyone else that she has avoided any serious romantic entanglements. But Nick Andreani, the family's new hero, might be interested in pushing her limits, if he remembers how. Nick is a former priest who recently left his pulpit after a crisis of faith and guilt. As Nick and Megan circle warily around each other, Nick tries to uncover the identity of the man who helped avert the carjacking. Megan knows more about the stranger's identity than she will admit, and she tries to talk Nick out of his search in a futile effort to protect her younger sisters from the truth. But even Megan is due for a few surprises that will change the way she views herself and her choices.
The novel alternates between chapters set in the present and chapters set in the late 19th century. The flashbacks feature Lena Tierney, an Irish immigrant and newlywed whose boundless energy is directed towards caring for her beloved husband Terry and eventually moving beyond the slums of Whiskey Island. But an unexpected medical crisis sends Lena in search of a job in the home of one of Cleveland's most wealthy and ruthless industrialists. Lena's decision to become a cook's assistant, despite Terry's
objections, sets a chain of events into motion that will not be fully resolved for more than a century, when Megan and Nick discover the motivation behind their stranger's actions.
Summarizing the plot of Whiskey Island is challenging, because there are so many threads, past and present, that are woven together in this rich novel. It's part historical document and frank portrayal of the virulent prejudice faced by the Irish, and part contemporary analysis of three sisters coming to terms with their past and moving beyond it. It also offers a realistic if not always complementary portrayal of the child
welfare field, as seen through Casey's eyes.
The dynamics among the sisters, and between the sisters and the men who love them, are complex and skillfully detailed by Richards. Megan and Casey have responded to their troubled childhood in diverse ways. Megan insisted on holding on to the saloon and became the reliable, militantly independent guardian of the family's legacy. Meanwhile, Casey resented the saloon's hold on the family, and defiantly chose a more reckless path. The sisters have to re-establish their bond and admit that they both made some misguided choices.
Nick is a wonderful hero -- imagine the appeal of a handsome, brave and selfless guy who has been celibate since high school! It's easy to root for him as he courts the very skittish Megan and searches for his new calling. There's also a sparkling romance between former Casey and attorney Jon Kovats, her best friend and sparring partner from her high school days. Richards' characters are realistic and unsentimental but somehow even more romantic because they are so believable.
The novel begins with a violent confrontation in the present, and ends with the discovery of another violent encounter that took place more than 100 years ago. In between, the reader is treated to strong women, admirable men, difficult circumstances, a truly creepy villain, and several fine romances. I didn't find Whiskey Island to be as transcendent as the author's Beautiful Lies, or as creative as the paranormal duo
Once More With Feeling/Twice Upon a Time. But like any novel written by the esteemed Emilie Richards, it's a book to savor.