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As evidenced by the oft-lush and evocative setting of "The Lemon Orchard," Luanne Rice's latest bestselling novel, the author has been bewitched by the Golden West where, a few years ago, she bought a home in Malibu.
But that doesn't mean she's gone all So-Cal on us. Rice still owns the Old Lyme house she grew up in, as well as the apartment in Manhattan that has served as her long-time home base.
It's Connecticut, though, that will be Rice's geographical focus for the immediate future. In celebration of the publication of the deluxe paperback edition of "The Lemon Orchard," Rice will appear tonight for a reading and signing event at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison. On June 3, she's the guest at an author luncheon at Mystic's Bank Square Books.
And, on June 14, Rice is the literary recipient of one of the 2014 Governor's Arts Awards - placing her in the splendid writerly company of previous winners such as Arthur Miller, William Styron, Robert Penn Warren, James Merrill, Philip Roth, Wally Lamb, Barbara Tuchman, Annie Dillard and Ann Petry.
The award will presented in New Haven as part of the annual International Festival of Arts and Ideas.
"To be honest, I opened the letter and thought it was a joke," Rice says, laughing during a phone call from New York City last week. "When I realized it was real and looked up some of the past honorees, I was pretty overwhelmed."
To speak for any length of time with Rice is to know she's modest, kind and wittily self-deprecating. But longtime readers won't be surprised by the award.
Though PR folks and marketing squadrons characterize her catalog as "novels about family" - a description Rice endorses - there are also critics who imply that what Rice writes is only a slightly more literary version of romance novels.
While it's true that the enigma of love is frequently at the heart of her work, the emphasis would be on "enigma." Rice explores the nature of family and love on many levels beyond what might be called the Harlequin Blueprint- and issues such as addiction and domestic violence are often real-world components to the work.
"The Lemon Orchard" is perhaps her most complex story. Julia, five years after the death of her daughter, moves to California to house-sit at her uncle's home in Malibu. Still devastated by loss and the unanswerable question of whether her child committed suicide, Julia strikes up a friendship with Roberto, a Mexican illegal immigrant who oversees the property's titular lemon orchard. It turns out that Roberto's own daughter disappeared while they were crossing the border - and has never been found.
With these core elements and a fluid structure wherein Rice nimbly hop-scotches across a variety of points-of-view, "The Lemon Orchard" is not just a love story but two interlocking mystery stories and a riveting and heartbreaking examination of illegal immigration.
"Writing the book had a profound effect on my own activism and views of humanity," Rice says. "I write a lot about pain and heartache, but because I write about characters more than issues, this was something that became very important to me over the course of the book."
Roberto and his family were directly inspired by real-life events. When Rice moved to California, she became close to an undocumented family whose patriarch was doing work at her new house.
"We started talking a lot and, in the fashion that he'd talk to any friend, he gradually started telling me stories about leaving Mexico because of the violence and lack of opportunity," Rice says. "Each day he'd tell me a new installment in his story - and they were frequently descriptions of life and day situations we don't really think about. He was not unhappy to be in the U.S. and was grateful for his situation, but you have to remember he'd left everything he knew and people he loved behind. And I kept feeling my life change by the moment."
As for the aesthetic influence of California on a proud New England woman, Rice says there are indeed differences as well as similarities - and it all plays a part in the writing.
"For one thing, I can write anywhere," Rice says. "I love to write in hotel rooms. To me, it's just a different desk and a different window! I was going out to California a lot on business and I just fell in love with the landscape and the culture. The mix of nature and urban life was pretty magical. I learned a lot about a part of the world I didn't know about.
"At the same time, it occurred to me that, in Old Lyme, I have sort of a protected sanctuary with our property down to Long Island Sound. In California, there's a view of the Topanga Canyon leading to the Pacific Ocean - so it's the same view on a much larger scale."
Rice seems profoundly grateful for her time and opportunities in California and the effects it's had on her writing. But she also realizes that all experiences are part of the ongoing dialogue of art.
"A lot times, I want to say the new environment is more different than it really is," she says. "In reality, it's just a new exterior. I write about human relationships and the heart, and I'm always going to write about that."
Who: Luanne Rice
What: author luncheon and book signing
When: noon, June 3
Where: Bank Square Books, 53 W. Main St., Mystic
How much: $10 catered luncheon, $20 includes signed copy of "The Lemon Orchard," RSVP required
For more information: (860) 536-3795, banksquarebooks.com