Luanne Rice pens her 29th book

In researching her latest novel, "The Silver Boat," Luanne Rice was exposed to a grueling research regimen wherein she was required to spend significant time in Martha's Vineyard and coastal Ireland - the two principal settings for the book.

"Yes, it was hard duty, extremely painful," Rice said with a laugh over the phone last week.

"The Silver Boat" hits bookstore shelves tomorrow, and Rice appears Friday in a reading and signing event at R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison.

Rice says she didn't just choose to write about two exotic locales because of their travel-brochure allure. It turns out both the Vineyard and Ireland have significant personal meaning. Though she divides her time between Manhattan and the cottage in Old Lyme where she spent her childhood summers - and which is still her "writing base" - Rice is of Irish bloodline. And, as a teenager, she babysat extensively for a family on the Vineyard.

"I grew to love the Vineyard over the years, and I developed my own friends and memories there," Rice says. "And my family is from Ireland, so I've visited there to learn about the family and to learn where I came from. Neither Ireland or the Vineyard has the deep connections I have with Old Lyme, but they are places of great beauty that I love, and they resonated with me when I started thinking about 'The Silver Boat.'"

Ultimately, Ireland and Martha's Vineyard don't just provide idyllic scenery in the novel, but they also supply structural and historical context that makes them as integral to the plot as the human characters.

The plot focuses on Dar McCarthy, the last of her family to remain in their ancestral home on Martha's Vineyard. Her younger sisters, Rory and Delia, whose married lives have taken them elsewhere, return to the island for one final visit before the house is sold for back taxes.

In the bittersweet days of the reunion, they reconnect with the Vineyard and old friends and share the less-than-wonderful circumstances of their respective current lives. As always, Rice writes about her characters with sympathetic grace as well as a poet's affection for nature and place.

In this setting, the siblings once more focus on the family's great mystery: the disappearance of their shipbuilder father, Michael. When the girls were young, he sailed away from the Vineyard to his native Ireland, hoping to return with a Martha's Vineyard land grant he claimed to have received from the King of England - one that would allow him to establish his own identity rather than to rely on what he perceived as uppity in-laws.

But he never returned and was never heard from again.

When, in the course of packing their belongings, the sisters uncover new clues in a cache of their parents' old love letters, the sisters are inspired to take a last-minute trip to Ireland in an effort to find out what happened.

Rice, whose novels are famous for explorations into the intricate cobwebs of the Family Dynamic, says incidents in "The Silver Boat" are reflective of when her own mother passed. She and her sisters went through belongings and family papers in the Old Lyme cottage and discovered all sorts of information.

"Everything about a family is mysterious," she says. "There are moments when a family finds itself at the edge and, in this case, it's what the McCarthy sisters are going to do with the house on Martha's Vineyard. It all comes back to their father's disappearance and how they deal with the implications as they've unfolded."

Despite the sisters' varying emotions about their dad leaving them in search of a birthright, each comes to realize it's important on several levels to try to find out what happened.

"In real life, a father can be a mystery to his daughters, and I wanted to find a way to express that and delve into how that had affected them over time," Rice says.

Similarly, as Rory, Dar and Delia have gone their separate ways and had different experiences in love and life, each comes to view the potential loss of the Martha's Vineyard's property in different and unexpected ways - from despair to actual relief. The book becomes a meditation on whether memories, childhood associations and the metaphorical ghosts of Home are volatile emotions.

"It can be very, very dangerous because nothing stays the same," Rice says.

She describes being able, as a kid, to walk the beach neighborhood of Old Lyme with her eyes closed at night - and knowing exactly where she was.

"There was a very Brigadoon quality to that, but the place has changed so much," she says. "And you can get caught up in what was. You find yourself searching and finding answers to questions you haven't even asked yet and maybe didn't want to."

Success around the world

"The Silver Boat" (Viking, 289 pages) is Luanne Rice's 27th novel, and - based on advance orders - it will be her 20th in a row to make The New York Times Bestseller list. Rice says she could never have anticipated such success and won't allow herself to entertain such thoughts when she sits down to write.

"I think I'm always surprised, and it all sort of hits home for me on the road when people come to signings and events," she says. "I definitely don't think about it when I'm writing, but I'm certainly grateful."

Since she has millions of books in print in a variety of languages, one of the interesting reminders of her popularity is the variety of royalty checks she gets from all over. She laughs when asked if she ever gets a really small residual. "I got one last week for $8.64," she says, "and was happy to have it. They come from all over the world, and it just makes you happy that you're in wide readership."

- Rick Koster

If you go
Who: Novelist and Old Lyme native Luanne Rice
What: Talking about and signing copies of her newest book, "The Silver Boat"
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: R.J. Julia Booksellers, 768 Boston Post Road, Madison
How much: $5; admission ticket free with purchase of book
For more information: (203) 245-3959,


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