I’m always thrilled to review Jean Stone’s books in her Vineyard series. They are like chowing down on a tasty meal, and “A Vineyard Season” doesn’t disappoint. As always, Stone spins a great yarn in which everyone in our protagonist Annie’s tight-knit “family of choice” has something going on. Stone once again welcomes us into their lives — making each novel feel like we’re catching up with old friends.
The action opens with Annie on the ferry returning from her stint in Hollywood, where she was working with screenwriters and producers to transform her best-selling mystery novels into scripts for a TV network. The lure of Hollywood had her fantasizing to a degree about moving there permanently — but she knows her Island home and dear ones who live there, as well as the inn she co-owns on Chappy, call her back. Besides, Annie’s supposed to marry her fiancé, handsome police chief John, in just a few weeks. Immediately, though, we sense something is not quite right when Annie runs into an acquaintance onboard, who drops the comment that it’s a good thing Annie’s returning home. Before she can pursue the matter, the announcement is made to disembark.
John is disturbingly cool and distracted when he picks her up, and simply drops her off at home, saying that night’s homecoming dinner has to be put off because his older daughter Abigail is tired, and the younger one is at the science fair. Soon Annie learns that Abigail has been worrisomely tired of late. It turns out that she has a serious illness, which drives John into caretaker mode, as well as into his ex-wife’s orbit, and out of Annie’s. As he increasingly excludes her from his life, their relationship soon hangs in the balance, let alone the wedding.
Although Annie should be finishing the manuscript for her next book, what is happening to each person in the “family” provides easy and sometimes convenient distractions. Claire and Earl — John’s parents and nurturing parent figures to Annie — have their own unforeseen drama. Another couple in the group is imminently awaiting their baby, which means the expectant mother Francine needs to stop working at the inn, leaving others to fill the vacuum. Into this mix, Stone introduces a new character, Rex, a professional chef who is looking to start a restaurant on the Island, but is happy to help out in the meantime. There’s a bit of mystery tied to him, but the biggest one by far is when Annie is contacted via email by an anonymous stranger with a disconcerting request. Let’s just say, since I want to avoid any spoilers, this man ends up significantly upsetting the applecart between Annie and her half-brother, with whom she has a deep bond — and throws what they know about their past into a new and possibly questionable light.
I was happy that Stone has once again included Murphy, one of my favorite characters, who was Annie’s dear friend before her death some time ago, but remains her guardian angel. Murphy, like always, is wise and amusing as Annie’s advisor and confidant.
As with the other books, Stone is expert at leading us through the intricate web of relationships and each character’s evolving story. An added bonus, for those of us who know the Vineyard, is that she always gets the tiny details about Island life right — even down to how long it takes to get from town to town; which libraries are open when; and in this book, a lot about the Chappy Ferry, which, of course, is the lifeline for Annie and the rest of the gang living on Chappaquiddick.
Asked what initially inspired the plot, Stone explains that while in an ER after a collision with a deer in which she was unhurt, she saw parents tenderly waiting with their daughter to be seen. She recounts, “It was clear that the girl had either an illness or an injury … Situations like that trigger a writer’s imagination: What has happened, how will it turn out, and will the outcome change the lives of each family member?” The child didn’t seem to be in serious condition but, Stone continues, “The scene was a real-life event, a reminder that things can and do happen in any family at any given minute. I like to put my characters in real-life situations, with real-life complications. Then I like to watch them respond in very human ways, with realistic human fears and a human heart — emotions that my readers might be able to relate to.”
And in “A Vineyard Season,” as with her previous novels, we do care about this group of folks, who are lovingly bonded through both happy and challenging times. We fret for them and celebrate with them as friends as they move through all the situations.
I was initially heartbroken to learn that this is the last book in the Vineyard series, but reassured when Stone told me that in her new one, “Up-Island Harbor,” “Expect to see some of your favorite characters from the previous series, too. All of which leaves the future open for surprises … because that’s reality, isn’t it?”
“A Vineyard Season,” by Jean Stone is available at Edgartown Books and Bunch of Grapes. For more information about Stone, see jeanstone.com. Stone will be appearing at Edgartown Books on July 4.