The belief that love has the power to transcend even mortality is the heart of Luanne Rice's evocative love story, Cloud Nine. The sheer poetry of the relationships she portrays is the story's soul. Rice transforms tragedy into grace in telling of Sarah Talbot's soaring triumph.
Sarah's family creates down-filled quilts which she sells in her shop, Cloud Nine. But the family is estranged, and Sarah's son, father, and aunt live on the remote Maine island which was, at one time, her home.
As Thanksgiving approaches, Sarah makes arrangements to return home, aided by the nurse who became her friend while she recovered from cancer surgery. Will Burke is the pilot who takes her, and in the process becomes the new love of her life.
Sarah's capacity for love encompasses Will's daughter Susan, who masks emotional pain by adopting unlikely nicknames like Secret and Snow — until Sarah helps her find acceptance.
Luanne Rice describes Cloud Nine as a book that demanded to be written. Like Susan, Luanne's experience of caring for her own dying mother affected her profoundly, and for two years she was unable to write. Her mother "was the constant, encouraging figure in my life," notes Rice. She attended the same small public school as her mother, and credits her teachers with reinforcing her mother's support of her writing. "The years of her treatment and decline were so terrible and compelling," Rice says. "The whole thing affected me really deeply, and I stopped writing. I stopped being able to think like a novelist, I couldn't make the emotional connections I've been so blessed to be able to make."
The loss of her mother and the loss of her writing lingered until Rice sat at the kitchen table in her childhood home, and Cloud Nine began to come to her. Rice describes that setting as a place where there were a lot of personal ghosts, a lot of loss, but also a lot of love. "The whole experience came to me in one character, and that was Sarah. I didn't know how to work with her, and I didn't have it in mind to write a book about death at all."
Rather, Rice says, the story is about how to really love, "how when you open yourself up to that experience, it can really transform your life."
In Cloud Nine, Sarah's courage and love transform all those whose lives she touches — including her birth family, whom she seeks out for reconciliation, and the new family of Will and his daughter.
Just as she draws on personal experience in creating the emotional lives of her characters, Rice also draws on personal touches for the story's details. Rice's visit to a down shop, for example, inspired her to create Sarah Talbot's quilt shop. Even Sarah's family home in Maine is an outgrowth of Luanne Rice's love of that locale, where she always goes for the revision process of her story-writing.
"I realized as I was writing that I was very much writing about my own experience," Rice says. When asked whether that means she identifies most with Susan, Rice demurs. "All the characters in the book are aspects of people I have known and loved, or they reflect experiences that I've had.
"I think it's the realization that Sarah herself comes to that I wanted to get across. To go through loving somebody and losing them is very transformative when you allow yourself to love them through it all. The only reason you can feel that much pain is that you have that much love."
On how the book evolved, Rice says, "The characters just came out my fingertips, I didn't so much tell them what to do as they created themselves."
Rice reflects now that while writing the book may have been cathartic, even more cathartic were the two years of silence she went through before writing it. "Writing the book was a joy, it came out so fast, it just shocks me."
The joy that Rice takes in her writing makes the book a joy to read, too. Lessons are sewn in tiny, telling stitches until the completed experience is as warm and encompassing as the enduring quilt of life itself.
Asked if she could tell readers one thing in handing over Cloud Nine to their keeping, Rice's response is swift: "Love your family." You will, in reading this evocative novel, love Sarah Talbot's family, as well.
Sandy Huseby writes and reviews from her homes in Fargo, North Dakota, and lakeside near Nevis, Minnesota.