Firefly Beach
by Luanne Rice, contemporary (2001)
Bantam, $6.99, ISBN 0-553-57320-9

Caroline Renwick was five when Joe Connor's father shot himself in the head and then had the decency to fall onto the girl, bloodied broken skull and oozing brain pieces and all. You see, Mr Renwick and Mrs Connor were having some naughty boinkums on the side, and Mr Connor is not happy. He charged into the Renwick house where Mrs Renwick, heavily pregnant with her third daughter Skye, was making wholesome yummy home-cooked meals for her two daughters Caroline and Clea. Mr Connor couldn't take the pain of betrayal, he wanted to take out the kids and bang-bang-bang them for revenge, but one look into Caroline's Pure, Innocent Eyes and he couldn't do it. He shot himself instead. (Talk about drama!)

And when Mr Connor fell, his photo of his son Joe conveniently fluttered slow-mo into Caroline's hand, and Caroline saw this six-year boy that was soon to be her soul-mate... she wrote to Joe, and they became pen-pals, all the while Joe believing that his father had a heart attack in Caroline's presence.

Then when they were teenagers, Caroline, unable to bear the guilt of conscience, told Joe. Joe, needless to say, was far from happy to get the news.

Fast forward to present day. Sisters Caroline, Clea, and Skye are finally reunited for some daytime TV sobfest opera. Caroline, the dependable one, is still anguished over her Great Deception. Clea has the typical middle child blues - stuck in the middle, feeling resentful at life at times. Skye is an alcoholic still reliving some past demons involving failed marriages and her accidental shooting of somebody. But never fear, Big Sis Caroline, with her Oprah prep talk about sisterhood and all, is here to hold everyone together.

Then Joe Connor decides to show up for some diving/excavation of an old 18th century shipwreck off area. Caroline and Joe meet and they start hearing love songs in the air. But Joe is determined to have nothing to do with the Renwicks anymore, and Caroline, the sensitive Laura Ashley she is, is hurt that Joe will blame her for the sins of her father.

And they wonder why Hallmark keep making movies out of Luanne Rice's books? Firefly Beach, in its first chapters, tread a fine line between genuinely heartfelt storytelling and nauseating oversentimentalism. Then, when the Innocent Children and Sisters Are Pure And Destiny Can Never Come Between Them claptrap comes in, this story becomes pure sobfest exploitation. Even when the author is creating Scenes of Dark Despair, she takes care to tell me that, hey, remember, Children Are Innocent and the Soul of Humanity (or something) and Sisters Are The Best! There is no sense of actual conflict.

And best of all, when things get tough, don't do anything. Just wait - a letter from the past will pop up to show the way. The diary of a daughter whose mommy ran away with the captain, found in the shipwreck, shows the way for Caroline and Joe to hold up lighters and wave them in the night as they and everyone sing "Kumbayah" together. I am also given snippets from Joe and Caroline's past correspondences, which is basically Caroline going all Laura Ashley meet Carol Brady meet the Olsen Twins as she tells Joe to breathe in, think happy thoughts, life is sunny, watch and love the Care Bears, and oh, please forgive her for all those sins she made mountains out of molehills of! And remember, of course, Children are the Windows of Hope and the Soul. If this book is right, we should do away with jail terms. Let criminals look into the eyes of our children, and they will all turn a new leaf, into tree-hugging, guantanamera-singing, raisin-eating Children of the New Earth and Hope.

Firefly Beach is a novel that doesn't challenge my emotions. It makes it clear from get go, drawing lines on the ground, telling me, "Okay, look, this is a happy book. Inspirational. Therefore, all those conflicts? Manufactured, so don't worry, because at the end of the day, nothing group hugs and letters from the past can't fix. Kumbayah, peace, flower power, love is all you need, John Lennon - remember '77 - amen." Okay, maybe not John Lennon. More like June Cleaver, really. But that's what this book's agenda is: to provide a comfort read of a time where people may have problems, but life is good. Perfect for people wishing of "good old-fashioned wholesome" stories, whatever wholesome means. It's not a bad read, far from it, but it is written through glasses tinted pink beyond pink that I am far more amused than anything else.

Is that the Hallmark folks calling Ms Rice's agent again?

Rating: 80

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