Since I often find the plots to be long and terribly slow-moving and the characterization to be both flat and unrealistically glamorous, the family saga is usually one of my least favorite forms of fiction. Sheltering Rain, a debut novel from the United Kingdom, is blessedly different.
Joy, her daughter Kate, and her 16-year-old granddaughter Sabine are quite human (sometimes frustratingly so) as they try to understand themselves and their relationships with one another. This is not a plot-driven novel; it is one of character in which there are some lovely and strongly emotional scenes, and the author’s writing about horses and the Irish countryside is absolutely beautiful.
A young English woman living in Hong Kong in the 1950s, Joy is portrayed in the prologue as a shy, awkward misfit. She is unhappy in the small social world of expatriate British citizens, but she doesn’t seem to know what to do about it. Her mother resents her, she does not have any boyfriends, and she dislikes the dull social scene in which she is expected to participate.
This changes at a party held in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Joy gets embarrassingly drunk and ends up meeting Edward, a young naval officer who will become the love of her life. After only two meetings, they decide to marry.
The focus of the story then shifts to rural Ireland in the late 1990s. Joy is now a grandmother and Sabine, the child of her estranged daughter, has come to stay. Sabine’s mother Kate is coming out of yet another bad relationship and has essentially dumped Sabine at Joy’s farm while she tries to get her life together.
Sabine is naturally unhappy at being sent away. She also feels awkward and out of place around her very reserved grandmother and the ill grandfather whom she hardly knows. The opening chapters are filled with Sabine and Joy’s fumbling attempts to get comfortable around one another. In addition to Joy’s reserve and Sabine’s resentment of her situation, the city girl also has to adjust to the ways of her grandmother’s horse-loving countryside. Indeed, the grandmother/granddaughter exchanges form some of the best scenes in the book. Kate does not come back into the story until much later in the book, so the bulk of the story is focused on grandmother and granddaughter discovering their love for one another.
There are many touching moments in this story. One of the novel’s great strengths lies in the author’s ability to show birth, death, and all kinds of family drama without turning treacly. There were a few moments – particularly when Kate reunites with her mother – when I thought I was about to go sailing through seas of cheese, but Moyes turned everything back just in time.
One thing that did irritate me, however, was the book’s structure and pacing – most of it is set in 1997, but the story also reverts back to the 1950s/1960s to show events as Joy remembered them. While it was clear that the author was attempting to smooth the transition by having Joy and Sabine look at photos or by having Joy ostensibly telling Kate or Sabine a story, it still seemed to break up the narrative flow. Things might have flowed more smoothly had an explanation for the transition always preceded the time jump itself, but there were instances when it did not.
Some of the characters could have been brought to life a bit more clearly. We are never treated to any of Kate’s memories or get a real sense of what Kate’s perspective on her mother and daughter might be. The secondary characters, especially the men, also seemed rather flat – even Edward, the love of Joy’s life, loses most of his three-dimensional qualities after Joy marries him. There are some rather interesting paradoxes in Edward, but the reader only gets to hear about them secondhand from Joy. The flatness of these male characters limits the impact of the story’s male/female connections so that the romantic relationships pale in comparison to the vividness with which the women’s relationships are drawn.
I had a nearly impossible time trying to determine what grade to give this book. On the one hand, I truly enjoyed reading Sheltering Rain and would recommend it. This is a debut novel, and it certainly shows a great deal of promise. I can’t wait to see what this author will do several years (and hopefully several published books) down the road. On the other hand, there were some weaknesses, primarily with the pacing and secondary characterization. However, with all of that said, I believe that fans of women’s fiction, or anyone looking for a good mother-daughter story, will enjoy this book.