Shore Lights is a lovely book about family, the relationships between parents and children, and how some feelings go unsaid when you just can’t find the words to express them. Hopefully I can do a little better than the characters in that regard in this review.
Maddy Bainbridge and her mother Rose never got along. The free spirited, rebellious Maddy and driven, critical Rose were polar opposites, with Maddy always acutely feeling her mother’s disapproval and disappointment in her lifestyle and choices. When Maddy gave birth to her daughter Hannah, Rose didn’t even come to the hospital.
So when Rose invites Maddy to come back home to the Jersey shore to help her with her bed-and-breakfast, Maddy accepts with some reluctance. Divorced, jobless, and with a 4-year-old daughter, Maddy figures it probably would be the best move for herself and Hannah, for a while at least. She soon settles back into life in her hometown. It’s a life she never wanted, surrounded by family, waiting at the bus stop with her cousins for their kids, treading carefully around her mother.
The biggest trouble spot is Hannah, a formerly happy child now quiet and withdrawn following her father’s remarriage and absence from her life. Knowing her daughter loves the story of Aladdin, Maddy finds an antique Russian samovar that looks a lot like a magic lamp on a local online auction site and begins to bid in hopes it will cheer up the little girl.
She has some competition though. Former firefighter and single father Aidan O’Malley is also bidding on the samovar at the behest of his teenage daughter, Kelly. Kelly recently found an old family photograph showing her great-grandmother with a samovar that looks just like the one being sold, and she hopes that giving it to the old woman will help them connect. Irene O’Malley has always been a remote figure, estranged from her family, so much so that Aidan’s sister-in-law refused to let Irene attend the funeral of Aidan’s brother.
Aidan and Maddy’s relationship begins as adversaries trying to outbid one another, then expands to email until they realize they live in the same town. It’s a very sweet, slowly unfolding sort of romance, where the characters have very nice chemistry and gradually feel each other out, though the sparks are certainly there. It should be noted that although categorized as Contemporary Romance, it’s more a work of Women’s Fiction. While Maddy and Aidan’s relationship is a major thread, it is one of several in the book. The story doesn’t take place over a very long period of time, only a few weeks. Though there is a sense that these two are meant to be together and will be, the last line of the book is very appropriate in saying this is more of a beginning than an end of a complete love story.
Shore Lights is more about the complicated messiness of family, and it’s one of those books that manages to touch on the complex bonds between parents and children, brothers and sisters, and people in small towns who’ve known each other their whole lives. Both Maddy and Aidan have big families with involved histories and tangled relationships, and Bretton clearly shows how their interactions are influenced by this. For instance, the reader knows Rose’s reasons for not being there when Maddy gave birth to Hannah long before Maddy finds out, but the lack of communication between them never seems forced or contrived. Given the wariness between them cultivated by years of conflict, which is shown slowly thawing over the course of the book, it’s understandable. There’s love there, but they don’t know how to react to each other.
If I’ve made it sound heavy, be assured it isn’t. The story is told with much warmth, and none of the characters, despite conflict with one another, is a villain. It’s not particularly action-driven, and can be a tad slow at times. But this is a book that’s more about the characters than a particular plot. I liked the way one secondary character’s thread didn’t really follow a conventional path, which seemed more realistic and less forced.
The grade might be marginally higher if it weren’t for a paranormal element that develops in the latter stages of the book. While it probably shouldn’t have been too unexpected for a hint of magic to pop up in the story – the book does, after all, begin with the words “Once Upon a Time” – it seemed an odd turn after all the mostly realistic material that came before it. It also shifts the book’s focus so that several threads, Aidan and Maddy’s tentative romance included, are pushed aside and others, such as the story of Irene’s life and why she closed her heart off to her family, step to the forefront. This part of the book is not bad by any means. Irene’s story in particular is the stuff of great sweeping, tragic sagas. In another book I would have liked to see more of it. But in this case it’s almost like a new story has begun, with many of the same characters, when I was perfectly happy with the old one.
Still, Shore Lights is good read, one that handles somewhat serious issues with a light touch that never becomes depressing. It’s an uplifting story, warm and cozy, and easily recommended.