Bestseller Luanne Rice will sign her latest YA title Monday in Madison

Luanne Rice
(Photo by Patrick O’Connor)
Luanne Rice (Photo by Patrick O’Connor)

Two years ago, bestselling author Luanne Rice, whose 30-and-counting novels explore the nuances, joys, heartaches and intricacies of family, fulfilled a long-forestalled promise to her niece when she wrote and published her first Young Adult title, "The Secret Language of Sisters."

Rice enjoyed the experience so much that she's followed up with another YA novel, "The Beautiful Lost," which comes out Tuesday from Point/Scholastic. Fans can get the new book a day early when Rice discusses and signs "The Beautiful Lost" Monday at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison. On July 11, Rice will appear at the Savoy Bookshop and Cafe in Westerly.

"I found I loved exploring the voice of a teenage girl," says Rice, calling from the family cottage in Old Lyme, where she grew up. "Most of my books for grown-ups have kids in them, and of course I have to write from their points of view from time to time. Normally, I'm writing from the perspective of an adult, and it's a very natural process. But now, to live in the voice of a girl again, to go back and be that person, it's an amazing experience."

"The Beautiful Lost" tells the story of Maia, a popular Connecticut high school girl who's suffered depression since her mother left the family years ago to pursue a passion for studying whales. Maia's condition once required hospitalization — an experience so wrenching she'll do anything to not go back. She's convinced if she can just reunite with her mom and spend some time with her, her melancholy will dissipate.

But Maia starts to believe her stepmother, Astrid, wants her re-institutionalized, removing any perceived competition for her father's attention. Desperate, she comes up with a plan to go AWOL in search of her mom. Unexpectedly, a trouble schoolmate, Billy, for whom Maia harbors a secret crush, joins her on the road trip. Billy has his own dark past he'd like to outrun and, as they make their way north into Canada, they begin to develop feelings for one another.

The perhaps significant theme of the book is depression in young people, which Rice explores with compassion and knowledge. In an author's note at the end of the book, she writes, "I wanted to write about a teen girl with depression because I know so well what it's like."

In conversation, she explains, "Depression started for me as a teenager, and I wanted to explore how it was for me then and how it is now because there are so many more treatment options available today, not just for depression but mental illness in general. I thought it was important to describe everything about what a young person experiences — from medication and side effects and wanting to stop taking the prescriptions to avoid side effects and all the way to psychiatric hospitals. I wanted to make it as real as I could regardless of my own feelings because, ultimately, I'm writing fiction and not just a public service announcement. But I do think it's good to let readers know it's okay to reach out for help. Or maybe a librarian or teacher will read the book and recognize a student who might be suffering."

In this spirit, Rice was on hand in Boston last December at Logan Airport for the opening of an exhibition touting a program called "Deconstructing Stigma: A Change in Thought Can Change a Life." It's a mental health awareness and anti-stigma campaign at McLean Hospital, the pyschiatric affiliate of Harvard Medical School, and Rice was just one of numerous celebrities taking part, including Howie Mandel and keynote speaker Darryl McDaniels, founder of the hip hop group Run DMC.

It should be emphasized that "The Beautiful Lost" contains plenty of fun, lighthearted and romantic moments, as well — everything from an impromptu Ouija board session and working with crab fishermen to the beauty of spending one's last dime on ice cream for someone else and the sorcery of a road trip playlist. (Rice plans on posting a "Beautiful Lost" playlist on her web site soon.)

Throughout the book, her passion for the sea, nature, music and the search for life's essences shines through on every page. But Rice came up with the story line for "The Beautiful Lost" in her usual fashion — which has nothing whatsoever to do with outlines or advance plotting.

"All my novels start with a character, and it's very much a mystical experience. They come and talk to me, and the writing process involves me needing to know what's going to happen to them," Rice says. "For this one, all I knew is that the character was named Maia and that she needed to find her mother. And it quite naturally did become a road trip story, which was fun because I'd never done one myself."

Readers can be forgiven if they worry that Maia is headed for disappointment because her mother has become an idealized symbol and presumed solution to all her problems.

"I think when you're young, it's understandable to think there's a sort of Holy Grail in life — something that you search for that's going to make everything okay," Rice says. "It's a teenage thing, but I still find myself in that situation, too. It's human. As I said, I don't think ahead when writing, so I actually worried about Maia because she's vulnerable. What her mother chose to do — follow her own life and career — isn't admirable. But kids also learn that not everything is black or white. There are other sides to every situation, and that includes the good. It's something Maia learns not just about her mother but also her stepmother. When you least expect it, people can really surprise you."

Rice wrote "The Beautiful Lost" in her Old Lyme cottage, which is unusual only because it signifies a bit of a road trip for Rice herself — destination Home. For the last several years, Rice has lived, first in Manhattan and later in Malibu, Calif. Both were creatively fertile spots where she did a lot of writing. Still, the return to Connecticut was perhaps inevitable.

"I really missed the East Coast and my sister and niece, who live in Mystic," Rice says. "I thought it was time to come back, and this old cottage welcomes me. It's been so good to get reacquainted with it. One of my big things this summer will be to plant the garden that's been ignored for many years. Here in Connecticut, the sky and the water are very different than in the city or on the Pacific. I liked California, but sometimes I felt melancholy in the sunshine. When things are always too sunny, it doesn't match your interior life. Here in Connecticut, the sky can go from bright blue sky to hazy to gray very quickly, and that seems natural. The breeze is so strong you feel like you're on a boat. And I missed all that. I feel peaceful here."

If you go

Who: Old Lyme native and New York Times Bestselling author Luanne Rice

What: Discusses and signs copies of her latest book, a YA novel called "The Beautiful Lost"

When: 7 p.m. Monday

Where: R.J. Julia Booksellers, 768 Boston Post Road, Madison

How much: Free, books available for purchase

For more information: (203) 245-3959, luannerice.net

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