Monday, September 24, 2012

Book Review: The Harbormaster's Daughter by Heidi Jon Schmidt

A bit about the book: Set in present day New England, Heidi Jon Schmidt's The Harbormaster's Daughter nevertheless invokes an old world feel. Despite the fact that they are living in the twenty-first century, the characters who populate the novel maintain a certain nostalgia for life as it used to be in their little seaside town. Oyster Creek was once a town of fishermen, driven by an industry now mostly abandoned. As new folks move in, taken by the town's charm, the families who've been there for generations struggle to adapt.

Schmidt has written what is mostly literary fiction, but with a bit of mystery thrown in, as well. It is the story of Vita Gray and her early childhood tragedy. Her mother Sabine moved to Oyster Creek more than a decade ago, one of the outsiders taken in by its old world charms. She was a free spirit, unconstrained by the usual norms of society. As a result, she first got Vita; the second thing it got her was murdered.

Sabine's friend LaRee has raised Vita ever since that fateful night. Vita has had only minimal interactions with her father Franco, a long-time Oyster Creek resident whose wife Danielle seems saintly after his indiscretion rocked their world in more ways than one. Vita, now a teenager, is struggling through these difficult years. She lives partially as an insider in Oyster Creek - her father's daughter - and partially as an outsider, ever living in the shadow of her mother's shocking murder. When she finds out some truths about her mother's death, Vita's world is rocked even further.

Why you want to read it: Although there is a murder within the pages of this novel, Schmidt has not written a thriller. The truths Vita learns are already outlined for the reader beforehand. Instead, The Harbormaster's Daughter is a slower-moving story that focuses on human interactions and growth. Vita is, of course, as the heart of the novel. However, Schmidt has also thrown in several characters readers will love, as well. LaRee will make her way into your thoughts, as will Vita's father Franco. Although he is oftentimes a bumbling idiot when it comes to female feelings, deep down he is a man with good intentions.

Another plus for the novel is Schmidt's integration of Shakespeare into the book. Vita's one love is being a part of an outdoor drama group who produces a Shakepeare play each summer. The Tempest is the chosen play for this year, and Vita is fully involved in its production. Although she doesn't get the part she hopes for, any little part she plays is important to Vita. I enjoy links to other pieces of literature within novels, and Schmidt does this very well in The Harbormaster's Daughter.

The bottom line: Schmidt focuses on the things that make us all human in The Harbormaster's Daughter. Although it didn't turn out to be the literary mystery I thought I was going to read, the novel was winning in other ways. The characters, setting, and inclusion of Shakespeare make the novel something special. I did feel as though the action moved rather slowly in the middle; because the reader knows everything there is to know about the murder early on in the novel, the plot is not driven by an overreaching conflict. Instead, it's a slower novel that focuses on people rather than action.

About the author: Heidi Jon Schmidt is the author of four previous novels, one of which was also set in Oyster Creek. It is titled The House on Oyster Creek. Schmidt lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and has been writing for several decades. Her early short fiction has been published in The Atlantic and other literary magazines.

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