I’d heard good things about Firefly Beach and Summer Light, Luanne Rice’s back-to-back summer releases, so I was looking forward to sinking my teeth into this one. I’m always up for a good story, and have had good luck with women’s fiction lately. But Firefly Beach, though for the most part well written, wasn’t entirely satisfying.
The story centers on a trio of sisters, the daughters of the famed painter Hugh Renwick. Caroline, the oldest, is the emotionally reserved but saintly caretaker of her sisters. The middle sister, Clea, is less defined. Married with two children, she’s the only happy one of the bunch. Then there’s the youngest, Skye, who is a sculptor – an artistic genius, actually – and also a rather out-of-control alcoholic who’s married to a complete creep. They all live Black Hall, a small New England town, and Caroline manages the Renwick Inn, which is a trendy artist haven. She also less expertly manages Skye and her mother Augusta, when they decide to cooperate.
Entangled in the history of the Renwick family is the history of the Connor family. Long ago James Connor died because of something Hugh Renwick did, and his son, Joe Connor, has long hated Hugh. Joe and Caroline corresponded as children before Joe found out all the details of his father’s death. He hasn’t written or talked to her for twenty years. But he never forgot about something she mentioned in one of her letters: a ship that sank two centuries ago just off Firefly Beach. Now a respected oceanographer, Joe makes his living doing shipwreck salvage. He comes to Black Hall to see what treasure he can find in the sunken Cambria. And while he’s fully comfortable digging up treasure, he isn’t so easy unearthing the emotions he long ago buried.
This book was well written. The prose style was often picturesque, and Rice used some interesting symbolism to reiterate what she was trying to say, the most memorable example being a rather gruesome story about Augusta’s adventures with a bandicoot. The characters were well drawn, and I liked both Caroline and Joe. I also thought the treasure-hunting angle was very unique and interesting. I even liked the “villain” of the book, Hugh Renwick, who could have easily been portrayed as entirely bad considering some of the things he did.
But I kept running into these little editing errors, mostly related to timing or chronology, and these errors kept distracting me from the writing and the narrative. To give you a couple of examples, in one scene Joe’s brother thinks about an accident he had when he was eight years old, and then a couple of pages later there’s another reference to it, but this time he was twelve when the accident occurred. Skye’s husband Simon is described as being tall and then later as small. And when Augusta goes to see one of her daughters in the hospital, she wears a mink coat. But the timing’s all wrong for this because it’s late June or early July – it would much too hot for a mink coat even if she’s wearing it as a sort of security blanket to help reduce her anxiety.
Another thing I could not relate to was the mystical sisterhood angle. Quite a bit of the book is devoted to the characters’ awe of the wonderful sister relationship they have. This I didn’t get. I mean, I have a sister, and I love her very much. She and I spend a lot of time together, and we’re very close. But I don’t look at our relationship as mystical and I don’t spend a lot of my time thinking about the spiritual bond between us or between sisters in general. Yes, my sister and I understand each other, and, sure, we enjoy many of the same things, but we share DNA and upbringing, so that’s not really surprising. In many ways this book reminded me of a Deborah Smith novel with its emphasis on the problems and mystical properties of family ties. I guess I take a more pragmatic than spiritual approach to family, so this didn’t really work for me.
Finally, interspersed between chapters are the letters that Joe and Caroline wrote to each other as children. These letters did not seem to me like anything kids would actually write. They were far too short, and occasionally more introspective than a child would be capable of. I know they were included to reinforce what was going on in the narrative, but they did this in such a tidy way, that they didn’t seem authentic.
Firefly Beach is a book I feel I should have liked better because the story is an interesting one and all of the characters seem real. Yet, for all of its pretty prose, it failed to hold my interest. I would have put it down well before the first third was over if I hadn’t been reviewing it. There were touching moments and times when I was a little captivated, but they didn’t happen frequently enough for me not to keep calculating exactly how much more I had to go. Still, if you like Deborah Smith’s books with their complicated family structures and slightly mystical quality, you probably would like this one as well.