California Literary Review

Light of the Moon by Luane Rice

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February 25th, 2008 at 10:37 am

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Light of the Moon by Luane Rice
Light of the Moon
by Luane Rice
Bantam, 400 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

CUE KNIGHT ON A WHITE HORSE

Readers seldom come to a book empty-handed. Rather, we arrive with a matching luggage set of expectations in tow. Plucking our books out from a crowd of millions that are published each year, we greet the first page cordially and then lay down the law.

“You are a crime novel – I expect fights, guts, and the hard-bitten hero to make it with only minor flesh wounds.”

“You are chick lit – the best friend shall triumph, anyone overly pretty will receive their comeuppance, and chocolate should figure prominently.”

“As for you, well, you are a new novel called Light of the Moon by Luane Rice. And I suppose I can call you, for lack of a better term, femi-lit.”

Femi-lit doesn’t make as many headlines as its younger sister, but it shares certain familial traits. The protagonist is usually a woman in her thirties or forties, intelligent, independent, and confronted with the crises that arise in one’s middle years – the aftermath of a divorce, the death of a parent, a loveless relationship, the seesaw of work and family, the lack of a child. And as with chick lit, it is often love or a change of place that proves the catalyst for change.

Sounding familiar yet? What if I were to list authors like Anita Shreve or novels like The Horse Whisperer or Message in a Bottle? Or bring up recent romantic adaptations like Under the Tuscan Sun? Or cross over into television to highlight Hallmark Channel movies?

It is in this light (pardoning the pun), then, that Luane Rice’s novel can be examined. The question is not whether Rice creates an unusual piece of literature, but rather how well she does within the realm of femi-lit. After all, there are many novels – Jane Austen’s Persuasion might be classed as a very early example – that use its limitations to full advantage.

Light of the Moon begins with the aftermath of a miracle. Susannah Connolly, an unmarried anthropologist and the book’s heroine, travels to the Camargue region of France to fulfill the dying wish of her mother and visit the shrine of Sarah. According to mythology, Sarah was the servant girl who, with Jesus’s aunts, Mary Magdalene, Martha, and Lazarus, washed up on the shores of Europe. She is also the saint who blessed Susannah’s mother with fertility.

Susannah, who is running away from painful memories and an irritating suitor, arrives in Stes.-Maries-de-la-Mer and is made welcome by the Romany residents. Sarah has a special significance for the Gypsy people of the region, giving our heroine an immediate entrée into a “closed” world. There is a kind of logic at work here: an inquisitive anthropologist is going to be much more interested in the culture and legends of an area than, say, a saleswoman. And Rice is very keen on incorporating the history and myths of the region into her plotline.

But this is femi-lit, and unlike, say, Sally Vickers’s Miss Garnet’s Angel, which also explores the overlap of legend and modernity through the eyes of a middle-aged woman, Rice prefers to stick to certain unspoken rules. Susannah is childless, parentless, wounded, and wondering about love. She is in a region famed for its horses, a place imbued with the exoticism of the secretive Romany people. Readers therefore expect, and are given, a knight on a white horse, a young girl – half Gypsy, half American – without a mother, and a rift in the Camargue fabric that only an outsider can heal. While Vickers went brilliantly askew with her character, Rice goes straight down the middle.

The knight’s name is Grey Dempsey, an American cowboy who runs a ranch near the marshes of the area; the girl is his daughter Sari, the product of a love match between him and a famous Gypsy rider named Maria; and, to no surprise, Sari was traumatically injured when her mother left. After falling off the knight’s horse, named Mystère, while in pursuit of Maria, she has been unable to see color.

Leaving aside the connection to The Horse Whisperer for the moment, credit should be given to Rice for her hard work she has put into the book’s construction. Sari’s physical disability, as an example, is a reflection of her father’s ambivalent stance toward the Romany and her mother. It places Sari firmly in the novel’s environment, with its silvery marshes, white horses, and moonlit nights – an atmosphere that Rice evokes well:

They lived on the edge of a world of water, the sea-silvered marsh sliced into a puzzle of islands by hundreds of dark creeks. He liked this time of night, when the colors drained away, when his daughter could see what everyone else saw.

During the course of the narrative, Rice works to reconcile her metaphors, myths, and her characters’ relationships. Sari pictures her inner demons as a legendary dragon, with the red taillights of her mother’s fleeing car as its eyes, and holds tight to the story of Saint Martha, who soothed the dragon with song. Maria now lives with her lover in the desert of Nevada, as far from watery Camargue as possible. Susannah, whose specialty is cave drawings and prehistory but who can also, like Maria, leap onto horses in a single bound, is the healing link between them. The plot plans for this book must have taken blood, sweat, and tears.

So what’s the problem? Perhaps it is not so much the substance of the book that fails, but the style. It is possible for a reader, even one with a heavy dose of irony, to forgive a woman with a fluttering red ribbon being rescued by a cowboy if the subsequent relationship evolves into something more complex, but the love affair between Susannah and Grey is sometimes painfully awkward. Here are two examples:

There is nothing quite like diving into a secret cave with a man with whom you’re falling deeply in love…It was primal, and intense, and beautiful, and reckless, and made them realize they were part of something huge and everlasting.

They’d been apart for so long, nearly a month, and every night she’d dreamed of this – of kissing him, her body against his, his arms around her. He felt so wonderful and familiar, as if he’d somehow become part of her those weeks last month, as if without him, she had lost part of herself.

Leaving the agony of “nearly a month” aside, these descriptions of love are trite and they don’t do the book any favors. Femi-lit treads a fine line; a little wobble and it can easily fall into the romance category. In addition, when you plonk your heroine in an exotic locale, you run the risk of sounding like the tourism board. Rice knows that these traps are there; whether you think she steps over them is probably a matter of personal taste.

On a more prosaic level, a few pertinent marks from an editor wouldn’t have gone amiss. Invariably eyes “grow wide” or “flash,” rain “pounds,” and the sky is “spooky” – though such conventions make for a fast pace, they tax our patience. One might have noted, too, that comments like, “his French accent was soft, alluring, and sexy, but she barely noticed,” are just slightly contradictory. And a conversation might have been had about some areas where Rice repeats her histories or overindulges in another of femi-lit’s standards – lavish descriptions of domestic décor.

Now, there is a certain argument that says these examples are just typical shorthand for femi-lit, that readers want speed and satisfaction, and that Light of the Moon provides it in spades. One could find the idea of the universe being kind to Susannah, who as an older woman knows far more about life than any chicklet, a comforting one. One could state that the book’s purpose was not to create tension (Will Sari heal? Will Susannah and Grey make it?) but first to lay out the pieces of the past and then go about assembling them in an orderly fashion.

Nevertheless, there is something to be said for care and craft, and to label a novel as an example of femi-lit is not to excuse it from the criteria we apply to every book. Does its view of life convince? Has the author given us something new to chew on? Would it be on our shortlist if we were going to be stranded desert island?

With Light of the Moon we observe that Rice obviously has the muscle to write well-plotted novels; now it would be nice to see her stretch.

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