Antoinette Stockenberg’s tenth contemporary novel is a compulsively readable suspense story and a decent relationship drama, but a disappointing romance. So your opinion of Tidewater will depend on which of those three qualities are most important to you.
After struggling to raise her daughter as a single mother for 12 years, Sarann Johnson should finally be home free. She has married the wealthy headmaster of the private school where she works as an administrative assistant, and she plans to open her own antique store. She can now provide her daughter Abby with financial and emotional stability.
But there’s plenty of trouble in paradise. Abby, instead of being grateful for her newfound good fortune, has become obsessed with learning about her biological father. Sarann has told everyone that she is a widow whose husband was killed in an accident. But the harsh reality is that Abby was the product of a mind-blowing one-night stand. Using the Internet, the resourceful Abby discovers the truth, and sets out to bring her biological father into her life. Sarann is horrified, as is Sarann’s new husband Rodger, who is concerned about the status of his sterling reputation in their small New England town.
To make matters worse, Sarann may be losing her mind. At first she just notices small episodes of forgetfulness - she orders something from a catalog that Rodger told her he no longer needed, she loses her car in a parking lot - but then her instability increases to the point that she worries she may be a danger to others. The more Rodger tries to reassure her, the more concerned Sarann becomes. The sudden appearance of Ben McElwyn, the infamous one-night stand, is almost more than she can handle. Their connection twelve years ago was immediate and intense, but Sarann knew that Ben wasn’t the type for commitment, and he remains a loner to this day. Can Abby reunite her parents? How much loyalty does Sarann owe Rodger? And how many more strange incidents will it take before Sarann is convinced that she has inherited the mental illness that claimed her mother’s life?
I have to admit to a partiality towards characters named Abby. After all, it’s the name I chose for my own daughter, and I have always thought it signified strength and independence (like Abigail Adams). Abby Johnson doesn’t let me down. A strong-willed teenager, she goes after her biological father with single-minded determination, proving herself to be courageous, intelligent and tenacious. The reader readily roots for her to find happiness with her dad.
Ben McElwyn is a scruffy anti-hero but intriguing as well. Several years ago he lost his job as a policeman when he was unjustly accused of selling drugs, and he now lives a solitary life as a private detective. Watching him find a sense of purpose as a father and family protector is also very rewarding.
Tidewater’s glaring weakness is Sarann, who is more victim than heroine throughout most of the novel. It’s obvious to the reader that someone is “gaslighting” her, but Sarann sinks deeper into helplessness instead of fighting back. While watching Abby and Ben interact is heart-warming, I couldn’t figure out why Ben would fall back in love with this hapless woman.
Although the identity of the villain, and the motive, is pretty obvious, Tidewater works as a page-turner because you’re never sure how far the person will go to achieve their nefarious goals. A few surprises also move the story along nicely.
Antoinette Stockenberg has proven in the past that she can utilize her distinct voice and quirky sense of humor to create strong, memorable heroines. Unfortunately, Sarann is not one of this author’s better female characters. I finished the book feeling happy that Abby and Ben had found each other, but I also couldn’t help wishing they could leave Sarann at home while they go forward and enjoy their lives.