At first glance, CRANBERRY QUEEN is simply a book about a 30-something single woman despairing over an ex-boyfriend and a less-than-fulfilling job. Sound familiar? But just a few pages into the story, it is apparent that this debut novel goes much deeper.
CRANBERRY QUEEN opens with Diana Moore obsessing about "the biggest day" of her life. Tomorrow she will attend a wedding where the guest list also includes her ex and his new girlfriend. "Tomorrow" does become the biggest day of her life, but not for the reason Diana had anticipated. Instead of facing her ex, she is absorbing news of a tragedy that turns her life upside down.
So much takes place in the first few pages of CRANBERRY QUEEN that one wonders just where the story can go from there. Kathleen DeMarco immediately captures readers and carries them along on Diana's journey of self-discovery and healing. After months of dealing with the well-meaning but overwhelming interference of family and friends --- each one has an opinion on how she should handle her situation --- Diana walks out on her life. Driving aimlessly through the back roads of New Jersey, she quickly realizes that she cannot outrun her grief.
A minor car accident strands Diana in the Pine Barrens in a rural section of New Jersey, where she is embraced by a group of strangers who invite her to stay for the cranberry harvest and festival. She tells no one of the tragedy that has befallen her and so, for a brief time, she is not defined by it. Here she can be "someone else, someone new and different. Diana Moore, adventurer." Her new group of friends includes Rosie, a woman quietly dealing with her own suffering; Louisa, Rosie's self-absorbed granddaughter, who is running away from problems of her own; Jack, with whom Diana is finally able to share her grief; and Sam, a man who offers her the chance for a new beginning.
The author, who grew up near the New Jersey Pine Barrens, skillfully evokes this region, describing in exquisite detail the cranberry bogs, quiet woods, and shimmering lakes. "The green of the pine trees glows from the rising sun. The water is bluegreen, but there is a reddish tint in some places. It is stunning, it is quiet; I have never seen anything like this."
The beauty of the landscape is at odds with the despair that Diana is feeling, and this juxtaposition is in large part what makes the novel so effective. Another is the haunting irony that, through this tragedy, Diana is finally able to gain perspective on herself and her own life --- and learn the hard way that the little things that cause such aggravation are just that...little things.
Although a tragedy sets the story in motion, CRANBERRY QUEEN is not a depressing book. Kathleen DeMarco's use of emotion, humor, and sarcasm combine to deliver a novel that is rich on many levels. One can't help but be grateful that she has a background in film, for surely it has influenced the rendering of such vivid prose. That the story is at times bittersweet makes it all the more satisfying.
Reviewed by Shannon McKenna on April 17, 2002