BOOK REVIEW: The Silver Boat by Luanne Rice

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt

New York Times bestselling author Luanne Rice has launched her newest novel, The Silver Boat, in time to waft into summer with its melancholic depictions of Martha’s Vineyard and the remnants of one of the island’s founding families. Rice captures the ebb and flow of the Daggett descendents’ lives, loves and losses as they seek refuge on the island — and escape from it.

Like the waves that continually redraw the Vineyard’s boundaries, three middle-aged sisters — Dar, Rory and Delia — return to memories sweet and sorrowful, attempting to define who their parents actually were and who they themselves might become as they struggle to redefine their family in a confluence of crises. Abandoned in childhood by their unfulfilled Irish father; mourning the recent loss of their bedrock of a once upper-crust mother; tormented by addictions, failing finances and rocky relationships; they come together to prepare to give up their ancestral home, and Rice’s prose brings tears to your eyes with the familiarity of the family scenes and dynamics.

Any siblings who have divvied and boxed up the precious and mundane detritus of previous generations will know the truths in Rice’s story — as they will recognize the divergent intents and purposes of sisters who care for one another yet live far-flung lives.

But on the brink of closing the sale of the family estate, the sisters’ sudden departure for Ireland leaves the reader rudderless, without a clear indication of the women’s purpose other than to confirm the fate of their wayfaring father, Mike McCarthy, a gifted builder of ships on a quest for unclaimed fortune.

While the descriptions of Ireland and the people the sisters encounter are lovely, the trip seems as implausible as their father’s failure to communicate with his family beyond an initial indication decades before that he had made it back to his homeland.

Still, the primary characters are otherwise quite believable. Dar, the graphic novelist and recovering alcoholic waxes philosophic and powerful via her fantasy protagonist Dulse — and avoids traditional commitment with her long-term lover and best friend, Andy Mayhew. Middle sister Rory obsesses on a philandering husband she has not quite been able to cut loose, a chronic pattern that makes little progress during the course of the story. Delia, the youngest, fears the worst for herself, her marriage and her absent son, Pete, as he struggles with the anguish of a meth addiction, wrenchingly and convincingly portrayed by Rice.

Mostly, though, the male characters are less consequential to the women than the women are to each other — all but one of them — Dar’s beau Andy, a wise and reliable partner. The rest play foil to the sisters, miserably shrinking from the challenges of adulthood in sadly believable ways.

It is sadness that pervades this book, intentional or not, the sadness of understanding that comes from loss, its acceptance and the determination to survive it. And, despite any weaknesses, The Silver Boat has some compelling moments that remind the reader that family, however inept, is worth the effort.

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Crossposted at the North County Times.