Shore Lights
by Barbara Bretton, contemporary (2003)
Berkley, $6.99, ISBN 0-425-18987-2


Shore Lights is one of Barbara Bretton's most personal books, written as it was during a truly difficult time in the author's life. It is inspiring that the author manage to spin such a beautifully written story throughout those difficult times. Unfortunately, beautiful drama can't really mask the really slow pace of the book, the overabundance of characters and subplots that never go anywhere, and too much repetitions.

Set in the small town of Jersey Shore, this ensemble cast story begins with our heroine Maddy Bainbridge coming home with her four-year old daughter Hannah to stay with Maddy's mother Rose. Maddy is unemployed and she welcomes the chance to help her mother run the most successful B&B establishment in town. She just isn't sure she welcomes living with her overly-critical mother. She happens to bid for a Russian samovar in an online auction against a man who turns out to be the brother-in-law of her friend. Aidan O'Malley is a ex-fireman who is recuperating from an injury that forced him to quit his job. His teenage daughter Kelly is the sweetest gal who thinks the samovar will help her grandmother Irene come out of a haze of depression the old lady hasn't recovered from since... well, since a long time ago. From this auction war over the samovar, Maddy and Aidan establish a funny yet tender email communication. Events will happen in this book that draw both families and their friends and relatives together closer than ever. Shore Lights isn't just a contemporary romance, it's a story of love and healing.

One of the best reasons to read a romance novel is to enjoy myself when a romance novel doesn't seem to be conforming to a tried and true formula. This novel may be set in a small town, but I can't help thinking that the people in this book are wonderful people who may be a little bit too good to be true but still real nonetheless.

There is no pandering to right-wing values. While Maddy and Aidan are divorced or widowed, their ex- or late-spouses are real people whom Maddy and Aidan openly acknowledge to love. In Maddy's case, sometimes a marriage between two people who love each other can't work no matter how hard one tries, and sometimes it is best to let go. Still, she loves her ex-husband, or rather, she knows why she loves him once upon a time and she knows how to appreciate the memories while moving on with life. Needless to say, there may be regrets but there are no bitter grudges or hard feelings. Aidan's wife died too soon and he cherishes the memories of her through his trying to raise Kelly right. In short, these two people are sensible adults who, I feel, really know what love is. Their philosophy about love is simultaneously whimsical, realistic, and always appealing.

The secondary characters are just that - secondary characters. No matchmakers, no nosey over-the-top old women, just real people who behave like cousins and mothers and friends do. This comes with a price: there are so many subplots here, including Kelly's love story with her boyfriend, Aidan's brother's affair with Maddy's cousin, Maddy's husband and some of his leftover issues with Maddy - and these subplots are introduced and then left dangling. Were there one or two dangling subplots, I'm okay with being presented with open-ended resolutions to these subplots. But there are so many subplots here that are introduced and then apparently forgotten. This is not good, especially when quite a few of these subplots can be removed from the story without affecting the main storyline.

Also, it becomes very difficult to plough through the middle portions of this book, because the pace slows down most agonizingly and the characters become repetitious. For example, every time Irene comes onto the story, she is repeating the same old thing again and again about her not loving her husband enough and how she regretted not telling him before he died that she had just started loving him. Kelly disappears for most of the book - I assume she is happily reliving her loss of her virginity with her boyfriend Seth again and again - but whenever the conversation turns to her, it's always about how sweet she is. Maddy and Rose's relationship becomes stuck in a monotonous rut when at first their relationship seems so real and poignant. It is only towards the last few chapters that the book starts to come alive again.

But, when this book is good, it is very good. As a celebration of love and life, Shore Lights is always whimsical, sometimes too pragmatic, but always enough to make me laugh or shed a tear. But when it is slow, I have to grit my teeth in exasperation.

At the end of the day, if I have to make a decision about this book though, I'd say the good far outweighs the bad. Aidan and Maddy don't have a conventionally written romance - they don't actually meet face to face until much later into the book - but that's the beauty of this book. It proves that you can write a truly romantic and beautiful story without resorting to the tired formula. Barbara Bretton hits a few rough bumps along the way in this book, but at the end, I'm really glad I read this book. It's not a keeper, but it's still a book worth rereading at least one more time.

Rating: 87


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