Please note: This review does contain a few spoilers, but I’ve purposefully left out the big guns. They’re integral to the plot, and spilling the beans now would ruin the reading experience.
When you pick up a New York Times bestselling Barbara Delinksy book, there’s a good chance you can expect any number of the following: romance that will tug at your heart strings, friendships fraught with challenges but good intentions, squabbles that prove just how finicky (and how irreplaceable) family relationships can be, and steamy (but not excessively raunchy) sex scenes that are never ill-timed and always a guilty pleasure to read. With her latest book, SWEET SALT AIR, she has managed to pull off all four.
Set on a perfectly quaint island off the coast of Maine, SWEET SALT AIR’s Quinnipeague is home to a small community of proud locals known for their scrumptious seafood chowder, their delicious lobster knuckles breaded and baked in creamy butter and freshly grown herbs known to have restorative powers, and their decadently sweet desserts like marble macadamia nut brownies. “Quinnie” is an isolated place, but one full of character and charm, both for the droves of tourists who flock there in the peak summer months, and for the year-rounders who call the normally quiet escape their home.
"With dozens of other books under her belt and a dedicated following, Barbara Delinsky knows how to spin a yarn that will please many.... a delightfully indulgent and satisfying read."
This particular summer, 34-year-old Nicole Carlysle has returned to the island --- as she had most summers growing up --- to get the family home ready for selling after her father’s passing. Thanks, in part, to the huge success of her food blog, she’s also working on a cookbook featuring “sea-to-table” recipes from Quinnie’s influential café owners and restaurant chefs, and character profiles written by prominent freelance writer and Nicole’s best friend from childhood, Charlotte Evans, who has also come back to the island at her friend’s request.
The girls haven’t seen each other in 10 years, yet their reunion is anything but uncomplicated. Nicole is holding a secret that no one --- not even Charlotte --- knows. Julian, a renowned surgeon and Nicole’s husband of 10 years, has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. His condition is worsening, and the decline is threatening to topple not only his career if anyone finds out but also their marriage. Unbeknownst to Nicole, Charlotte is harboring undisclosed information of her own. Ten years ago, on the eve of Nicole’s wedding, the serially unattached Charlotte had a meaningless, drunken one-night-stand that resulted in a pregnancy and subsequent adoption.
While that sounds like a lot of drama to stomach, Delinsky’s portrayal of each girl’s eventual unburdening doesn’t feel trashy or exploitative. Instead, both the “before” and “after” moments are realistically padded with just the right combination of anxiety, anger, remorse and fear, to make both the circumstances and consequences of the situations believable. As Julian’s health continues to fail and the usually composed Nicole’s composure begins to crumble, it’s up to Charlotte --- despite her burning guilt --- to do what she can to help, even if it means exposing the truth she has tried so hard to bury.
So where is the aforementioned steamy romance in all of this? Enter (gulp!) Leo --- Quinnie’s infamous recluse, known for his unwavering stare and a four-year stint in jail for selling pot. While those who don’t know him --- including Nicole and, initially, Charlotte --- assume he’s nothing but trouble, Leo has a loyal following, including most of the locals who, for years, accepted deliveries from his mother’s herb garden to treat all forms of physical and psychological ailments. It’s Delinsky’s job to make readers wary of Leo at first, but, of course, we know what she’s really up to. There’s nothing more enjoyable to read about than a bad boy with a deeply sensitive and loyal side (especially one who is particularly adept with his hands), and the side plot involving Leo and Charlotte’s budding love affair is page-turning, to say the least.
With dozens of other books under her belt and a dedicated following, Barbara Delinsky knows how to spin a yarn that will please many. Sure, her detractors might see her plots as manipulations of well-traveled formulas, but if the books are believable and enjoyable, who’s to complain? To be sure, SWEET SALT AIR isn’t all froth and frill. The sections dealing with the progression of Julian’s disease and their controversial stabs at treating it --- and every character’s conflicting attempts at dealing with loss (Nicole’s father and Angie’s husband, Charlotte’s parents, Leo’s ex-girlfriend, and also his mother) --- feel genuinely hard-hitting and appropriately paced. Match that with an unabashed storybook ending (Come on. You know you love it!), and you have the perfect ingredients for a delightfully indulgent and satisfying read.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on June 21, 2013