Heidi Jon Schmidt,
The Harbormaster's Daughter
(NAL Accent/Penguin, 2012)

Even in the real world, it's probably true that no one leads a perfect and ordinary life. Some folks seem to have been destined to carry more than their fair share of burdens, though. And some of this baggage has been loaded onto them through circumstances well beyond their control.

This novel takes place in the fictitious Cape Cod town of Oyster Creek, Mass. For artistic and romantic types who visit or relocate from the mainland, this close but remote setting can be magical: full of brilliant light that inspires heightened creativity. And yet the Cape holds the traditions of its own residents as well: of the sailors and fishermen who make their livings based on the vagaries of the bay and the sea. Many of these natives can trace their roots back across the Atlantic to the country of Portugal, where even earlier seafarers once had the courage to set out on that long watery journey to the New World.

Oyster Creek harbors a small population of both "washashores" and Portagee. What happens when the two mix? Well, we find out when washashore artist Sabine Gray entices Franco Neves, the assistant harbormaster, into having an extramarital affair. Sabine becomes pregnant. When little Vita is born, Sabine raises her on her own, in their small cottage. Naturally everyone in town knows Franco is the father -- including Danielle, his wife. Attempts at somehow reconciling the two families are clumsy at best. And yet, life goes on.

When Vita is 3 years old, her mother is brutally murdered in their home by a local man. Sabine's will dictates that her friend LaRee Farnham gets custody of Vita. LaRee is a divorced nurse with no children of her own. Suddenly she's thrown into the role of mother to a girl who is already a victim on two fronts. LaRee raises her as best as she can think to, alternately sheltering Vita but allowing her as much freedom as seems appropriate. Their relationship with Franco and Danielle is also a tenuous one.

The Harbormaster's Daughter checks in on these individuals over the course of more than a dozen years, until Vita is close to finishing high school. It can thus be seen as a coming-of-age novel. But the story offers quite more than that. It's about realizing the complexities of life: How to find your place in your own skin and in your own community, where everyone already knows too much about you. How to live in the present, when all of the reminders of the past still loom large on the landscape and in the minds of others. How to refuse to allow your tragedies to define you. What it means to belong. And these are challenges that can face us all, no matter what age we might be.

Heidi Jon Schmidt does a nice job of presenting the narrative with an omniscient view so that various characters can come to the forefront. I rarely ponder or challenge the author's choice in this regard, but for some reason, the issue came to mind here. This would have been a far different read (and perhaps, a stronger one) if the author had allowed the major characters to narrate their own chapters, or if the entire book had been told from Vita's point of view. While this finished form does work, it also allows for exploration of a lot of off-screen activities. This is the second book Schmidt has placed in this town, after The House on Oyster Creek. Perhaps we'll be treated to some spin-offs in the future.

Nevertheless, The Harbormaster's Daughter is a great summer/beach read that should appeal to both adult and young-adult women. It will be easy for readers to cheer on Vita and LaRee -- and in a way, to root for Franco and his wife Danielle, too, and for all of the other quirky people in this far-flung place. Those who are addicted to Cape Cod novels will not be disappointed in the role of the setting here.

[ visit the author's website ]

book review by
Corinne H. Smith

25 August 2012

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