On Mystic Lake
by Kristin Hannah
Washington Post Book World
February 14, 1999
by Bella Stander
Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not a romance reader. Or at least I haven't been since high school, when for a while I devoured everything I could get my hands on by Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt. They were subsequently supplanted in my affections by Kurt Vonnegut, Ken Kesey and C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia (I was searching for an alternate reality); and since then -- except for a hazy period in the summer of 1982, when, recovering from a concussion, I read a Harlequin paperback and The World According to Garp and still can't remember which is which--I've read a romance novel only on the few occasions when I've been paid to do so. As an effete pseudo-intellectual snob, I prefer to spend my leisure time reading Quality Literature and wouldn't be caught dead with one of those books with a lurid rose or necking couple on the cover and a title like Love's Flaming Passion.
In light of the foregoing, I need hardly mention that I approached On Mystic Lake with more than my usual reviewer's mistrust. The first thing to put me off-guard was the book's jacket. No dewy red flower or torrid clinch here--just an almost photographic illustration of a cozy-looking house on a lakeshore at dusk, glowing against a backdrop of darkened evergreens, with the title in gold (perhaps a not-altogether-unconscious allusion to "On Golden Pond"?). At least I wouldn't be embarrassed to leave it lying about the house. The quote from Marcel Proust on the title page for Part One softened me up a bit more, and the opening paragraph showed that Kristin Hannah is observant and can turn a phrase: "Rain fell like tiny silver teardrops from the tired sky. Somewhere behind a bank of clouds lay the sun, too weak to cast a shadow on the ground below." By the time Hannah (also the author of such titles as Home Again and Waiting for the Moon) had sketched in the first scene, wherein 39-year-old housewife/mother/doormat Annie and her arrogant L.A. power-lawyer husband, Blake, take their daughter to the airport for a semester in London, I was hooked.
Of course I knew--pages ahead of naive and trusting Annie--that Blake has been cheating on her and wants a separation. And the rest of the plot was just as easy to figure out: All I had to do was tap into the fantasies of any fortyish woman, such as myself, who's been dumped for a hot young hardbody and wishes that she could start all over again. Hence it was also easy to foresee that Annie would go back to Mystic, her home town on Washington's Olympic Peninsula; that she'd hook up with Nick, the guy who got away in high school; that they'd have mad, passionate sex the first time they meet (O.K., I guessed wrong on the number of her orgasms: two. Say, this is a wish-fulfillment fantasy!); that Annie would care for Nick's motherless daughter, Izzy; and that alcoholic Nick would sober up.
The one clinker is that at book's end Annie decides to open a little bookshop in a Victorian house in Mystic. Obviously this is a fantastical story, for no one opens a little bookstore anymore, especially not in "an exhausted little logging town" where, as the designer-label-clad-heroine notices, people wear $19 jeans and anyone who wants a book like this one would drive to the nearest chain store or order it from Amazon.com. (Even way out in Mystic, though, Annie is able to get takeout latte, a detail that struck me as hilarious.)
So why was I hooked despite the predictability of the plot and the cartoonish limning of some of the secondary characters? Because, besides promoting Washington tourism with lush evocations of the Northwestern rainforest, Hannah is superb at delving into her main characters' psyches and delineating nuances of feeling. And in a romance, after all, feelings are what matter most. I'm sure there isn't a woman over the age of 35 who couldn't identify with Annie's sense of loss and abandonment, or share in her triumph as she regains her self-confidence and an identity separate from that of wife and mother.
These jaded eyes actually got misty at the passages in which 6-year-old Izzy implores her dead mother's spirit to wait for her, my skin crawled along with Nick's as he jittered through the early stages of his recovery, and I even felt compassion for the inability of Blake the cad to care about anyone but himself. Am I now a romance-novel convert? Nah, I'll still turn to Jane Austen for my comfort reading. But I'll heartily recommend On Mystic Lake to any woman of a certain age who demands that a story leave her in a satisfied glow.
© 1999 Bella Stander