Published June 7, 2005
The Color of Light
Available Now in Paperback
Buy the Book
Brenna O’Brien doesn’t believe in happy endings. Not since the love of her life, Pierce McGovern, left her years ago without a word. Now she leads a quiet life in bucolic Indianola, Louisiana surrounded by her four matchmaking sisters, running a nearly-bankrupt historic movie theater and collecting old wartime letters. But she leaves the letters unopened, preferring to imagine their possibilities rather than risk being disappointed.
Then Pierce comes back to town, shattering Brenna’s hard-earned peace, and forcing a reluctant Brenna to reexamine her life and question everything she has told herself to be true. It isn’t until a box of hidden World War II letters are unearthed and Brenna uncovers an ill-fated love story and a secret from her own past that Brenna realizes that if she doesn’t come to terms with the life she let slip away, she may never have the courage to go after the life she wants…
“White creates a heartfelt story full of vibrant characters and emotion that leaves the reader satisfied yet hungry for more from this talented author.”
“Beautifully written, White’s latest is full of emotional drama and well-crafted characters. Heartache and past tragedies are revealed in this one-of-a kind novel, which centers on newfound love and second chances.”
—4 1/2 stars, RT BookReviews Magazine, TOP PICK!
“Karen White has gifted readers with another masterpiece, touching every emotion in her novel Learning to Breathe! White captures the essence of small town living and the nuances of family life, making all her characters leap from the pages…White adds another wonderful story to her fan’s keeper shelves!”
—Reader to Reader Reviews
“Once I picked up this book, it was hard to put down.”
A lovely story of second chances, LEARNING TO BREATHE is dramatic and poignant and will leave few dry eyes. Passionately written, author Karen White has written about Southern charm and grace on every page. Life in small town Louisiana vividly comes to life, evoking visions of mint juleps and sweet tea on the gallery with family and friends.
—Contemporary Romance Writers
“All (of) Ms. White’s novels reflect her superb storytelling style, but LEARNING TO BREATHE is perhaps the most emotionally charged tale of them all…This is a book that is bound to resonate with readers on many levels.”
“LEARNING TO BREATHE is a passionate and often touching story and Karen White is an accomplished and insightful author who’s definitely on the rise.”
“LEARNING TO BREATHE is one of those stories where you savor every single word…[A] perfect 10.”
—Robin Lee, Romance Reviews Today
“White creates a heartfelt story full of vibrant characters and emotion that leaves the reader satisfied yet hungry for more from this talented author.”
“A wonderful tale of romance, sisterly love and community.”
Brenna drove from St. Andrew’s Catholic church to Kathleen’s house with her nephew Timmy, Colleen’s eldest, riding shotgun. Although she’d never admit it to anyone, because she really did love all her nieces and nephews, eight-year-old Timmy was her favorite. He had hair the color of Halloween pumpkins and freckles that dotted his face from forehead to chin and if the Olympics had a category for worrying, Timmy would be a three time gold medalist.
His parents had taken him to a child psychologist to find out why his personality bordered on the glass-half-empty side of the fence, and to teach him how to cope with life, but nothing had seemed to stick.
But, to Brenna, Timmy was amazingly introspective for a child, and his biting sense of humor always made her seek him out. She claimed that because she was his godmother, it was her duty to spend more time with him than the others, and everybody seemed accepting.
Timmy was so much like herself, it was obvious to Brenna that his personality was a genetic thing and unlikely to change. Watching Timmy clutch the door handle of the car as he stared wide-eyed out the windshield, she said a prayer of thanks once more that her father was not around anymore to browbeat a grandchild into being the type of boy Patrick O’Brien deemed worthy of being his grandson.
As she pulled her Volkswagen up to the curb in front of Kathleen’s house, she narrowly missed being sideswiped by a careening red Lincoln with white wall tires. The Lincoln flew up the curb and into the yard, landing squarely with two wheels in the grass and the vintage car neatly pinning the mailbox under the front bumper.
Leaping from her car, Brenna called back to a white-faced Timmy, “Don’t worry—it’s only Aunt Dottie.”
Before she even reached the driver’s side, Aunt Dottie was pulling herself, her large straw hat and over-sized purse out of the car. Smoothing her navy blue polka-dotted dress, she peered up at Brenna through coke-bottle glasses, the magnifying effect of the lenses making her green eyes the size of lime lollipops.
“Hello, dear. I suppose Kathleen moved her mailbox, because I always park here and I never recall it being in that location before.” She squinted toward the front of her car. “Well, I thought I saw a mailbox.” With gloved hands, Aunt Dottie took the large hat off her head and stared at it closely. Giggling to herself, she placed it back over her white-haired bun. “When I forget where I’m going, I always check my hat. This is my Sunday hat and I’m either going to church or Kathleen’s.” She squinted her eyes at Brenna. “Since you don’t look like Father Joe, I guess I must be at Kathleen’s.” The old lady looked around. “But I wish she hadn’t moved that mailbox. Now I won’t know where to park anymore.”
Brenna took her arm and guided her up the front walk, followed closely behind by Timmy. “Aunt Dottie, I thought we already had a talk about your driving. I think it’s time you allowed yourself to be chauffeured. You know that I’m just a phone call away.”
The old woman waved a hand through the air. “I can drive just fine—as long as I only need to see straight ahead since I can’t seem to see anything on the side anymore. And I don’t drive at night at all. Too much reflection in my glasses.” She stopped suddenly, looking frantically on the cement of the walkway behind and in front of her. “Where are my glasses? I can’t see and I can’t drive home if I don’t have them!”
Calmly, Brenna said, “They’re on your nose. I think maybe we should have another heart-to-heart.”
Peering closely into Brenna’s face, and blinking her magnified eyes, Aunt Dottie replied, “Are you married, yet?”
Timmy chuckled behind her as she pulled on the old woman’s arm a little more forcefully than necessary, and led her aunt up the stairs toward the front door. Ignoring her aunt’s last question, Brenna said, “Let’s go get you some sweet tea and get you settled, and then we’re going to have our little chat.”
The door opened and Kathleen stood in the doorway, smiling at them. As her gaze strayed over their heads toward the Lincoln and the remains of her mailbox, the smile dimmed but remained bravely in place. With kisses all around, Kathleen ushered them into the entrance hall, the smell of roasted chicken and simmering gumbo wafting from the kitchen.
Kathleen’s middle daughter, Marie, a miniature version of her mother and a near mirror image of Brenna, appeared and took possession of Aunt Dottie, leading her into the front parlor where a televised baseball game could be heard in stereo.
Brenna wiped a smudge of flour from her sister’s nose and rubbed it on the bold red apron Kathleen wore that proclaimed her “Queen of the Kitchen.” It had been a gift from Brenna when she was still in high school, acknowledging her oldest sister’s Martha Stewardesque abilities. Kathleen hadn’t managed yet to layer their inground swimming pool with cut-up credit cards, but Brenna felt sure it was on the agenda.
“Thanks, sweetie.” Kathleen put her arm around her sister and led her into the huge gourmet kitchen, a gift from her husband John on their twentieth-fifth anniversary. Although sixteen years separated Brenna and her oldest sister, their build and bearing was identical and, except for the extra lines at Kathleen’s eyes and forehead, they could have passed for twins.
Brenna paused on the threshold, staring at her sister’s neck. She reached up to finger the sparkling necklace that Kathleen wore, whistling softly. “Woo-eee. I didn’t know this had become a formal occasion. That sure is a fancy piece of jewelry you’re wearing.”
“Shh, Colleen might hear you. She got a quantity discount on Ebay on these genuine diamonelle necklaces so she bought one for all of us. You’ll have to put yours on, too, or her feelings will be hurt.”
“Great. I really need a necklace like that.” She popped a cheese straw in her mouth, her eye closing in pleasure. “Do you think Colleen is only ordering that stuff to hide an affair with the UPS man? I mean, he’s there every day making a delivery.”
Kathleen didn’t smile. “That’s not funny, Brenn. And talking like that is a great way to start ugly rumors about your sister.”
Brenna was spared from responding by the opening of the kitchen door. Claire and her husband, Buzz, breezed into the kitchen, followed by a flash of color and noise that Brenna recognized as the twins PC and Mary Sanford as they ran though the kitchen and into the hallway to find their cousins.
Buzz offered a brief greeting before heading out in the direction of the TV and the company of his brothers-in-law. Claire eyed a crab-stuffed pastry but didn’t touch it, instead reaching for a raw carrot sitting on a vegetable tray. “How was your date last night with Buddy Halpert?”
Brenna stared at Claire for a long moment, wondering again if the four women she called her sisters were really on her side. “You could have mentioned that he was missing a leg.”
Claire dug around the vegetable tray with a long, red fingernail. “I thought you’d figure that out yourself when I told you that the guys at work nicknamed him Stumpy.”
“It never occurred to me. Otherwise, I never would have suggested that we go roller skating.”
Kathleen seemed to be choking and quickly covered her mouth with her hand.
Claire crossed her arms over her ample chest, her whole demeanor that of someone completely affronted. “I didn’t think it would matter to you.”
“It doesn’t! It was his annoying habit of chewing tobacco and spitting it wherever he deemed fit that I found so objectionable. I’ll never get the juice off my white slacks—and they were my favorite.” She popped another cheese straw in her mouth. “I should send you the dry cleaning bill.”
Kathleen came over and put an oven-mitted hand around Brenna’s shoulder, her smile not completely hidden. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry about Chester Anderson and I’m sorry about last night. You know we only want you to be happy.” She glanced up at Claire who had slipped a cheese straw from the platter and was now shoving both it and a carrot stick into her mouth.
Brenna kissed her oldest sister on the cheek before pulling away. “Thanks—really. But maybe it’s just not meant to be. And maybe you all should just take a break from all this matchmaking. I know how exhausting I’m finding it, and I can only imagine what it’s doing to y’all.”
With a hand covering her full mouth, Claire said, “Um, you might want to wait on that. Colleen and Bill met some guy in Biloxi last weekend who has family in the area and they invited him to come today and meet you. I think she said his name was Elvis.”
Brenna rolled her eyes. “Thanks for the warning. I’ll go make myself a plate of food and lie low for a while.”
- In what ways are the constellations important to Jillian? Why do they hold such a fascination for her?
- What role does forgiveness play in the novel? For whom is it important and in what different ways is it asked for and given?
- Discuss the different ways motherhood is represented in the novel. Are they positive or negative? Why?
- Why does Linc disguise his identity from the community? Is this effective
- How is Jillian’s failed marriage related to her difficult childhood
- How is Jillian’s relationship with Linc different from her relationship with Rick? How is it similar?
- On page 303, Linc thinks to himself that he and Jillian “had always seen the core of things that existed under all the surface flaws.” Why does he think this, and how do he and Jillian demonstrate this in their lives?
- How do the townspeople feel about Linc returning to Pawley’s Island?
- Why is Janie’s plastic flower garden important to her?
- How does the epigraph by Alfred Lord Tennyson relate to the story to come?
- Why is Jillian afraid of the dark? How does she finally overcome that fear?
- When does Jillian realize that it was she who drove Rick away? What brings her to this realization and how does it change her?
Jillian’s Mouth-watering Lemon Bars
1 C real butter (2 sticks)
¼ t. salt
½ C. powdered sugar
2 C. flour
Grease 10″ x 13″ pan well. Blend above ingredients and press into pan. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes (until lightly browned).
2 C. sugar
5 T. lemon juice
4 T. flour
Grated lemon rind (optional)
Mix above ingredients and pour over first mixture. Bake 20-30 minutes at 350, or until solid. Cool then dust with powdered sugar and cut into squares.
A CONVERSATION WITH KAREN WHITE
What inspired you to write The Color of Light? Is Lauren’s disappearance based on true events?
The Color of Light is not inspired by any factual events (which is probably a good thing). I’m a huge fan of plot twists, and the idea of Lauren’s disappearance stemmed from that. I also love stories where the villain isn’t always a villain—that there’s something redeemable or understandable about the villain’s actions. It’s so much closer to real life, and more identifiable to readers.
Are you a full-time Mom, or do you work outside of the home? How do you balance these responsibilities with your writing life?
I am a full-time Mom to two children. I’m very blessed to be able to pursue my career as a writer while staying at home to raise my children. This doesn’t make it easy, however! I have to be very, very organized. Unfortunately, there’s always a deficit of time and I find that my sleep is the first thing to be sacrificed when I’m working on a novel. It’s a constant juggling act and when it gets too rough, I take a nap. I’m a huge believer in naps.
Your characters evoke a great empathy, even though they are flawed. Jillian, Gracie, Linc and Janie are all very human. Who or what inspires these characters? Do you identify with any of them?
I enjoy reading books about believable characters. Believable characters, to me, are simply those who are not perfect—like real people. I like to see people grow and change which means that at the beginning of the book, my characters have to have an impossibly high mountain in front of them. But I also give them something in their character to find the tools necessary to climb that mountain and move on. With Jillian, it’s her boundless hope. With Linc, it’s his need for justice. It’s what made me love both characters and root for them.
These characters are strictly from my imagination—or maybe they’re a collage of people in my life. I’m not sure because I never know where my characters come from. I imagine it’s inevitable that an author will draw on his or her own experiences to create characters. As for identifying with any of my characters from The Color of Light, I’d probably say Jillian. She uses self-deprecating humor to smooth over the rough spots in her life which is something I know that I do as well. That’s where the resemblance ends, however, since I have a well-known aversion to cooking.
Jillian and Linc share a very painful past that, at times, seems insurmountable. Did you know how the book was going to end when you began it?
I vaguely had an idea of how the book would end when I started writing the book. I don’t like to have everything mapped out in my mind before I write because that would be a bit like reading the end of a book first. The idea for the ending didn’t come to me until I was halfway through writing the book. I knew what would happen to Lauren, but I didn’t know who or why until that point. I also wasn’t sure how Jillian’s issues with her parents would be resolved until the final rewrite of the manuscript.
What do you consider important themes or motifs in The Color of Light?
I always come up with the book title before I start writing a book because once I have it, I know what the book is about. In The Color of Light, I wanted to show how two very damaged people could learn to overcome their pasts by finding whatever it is that lies inside of them that will give them the strength to go on. I’ve defined this internal fire as light. It can be a combination of things—the love of family, faith in God, the gift of creating things, a low country marsh. It’s what stirs the soul. In the same way a stained glass window can create a kaleidoscope of colors, so too do the small combination of things bring light to a person’s life.
You describe the South Carolina low country beautifully, and in such vivid detail. Is this a place close to your heart? Did you spend part of your childhood there, like Jillian?
I had never been to the low country until about eight years ago. I had always been fascinated by stories and pictures and movies and recognized a pull toward the area for many, many years. On my first visit I can honestly say that I felt as if I had come home. There is something about the Spanish moss and the smell of the marsh that steals your heart. Each summer now, I pick a different South Carolina island and rent a house for a week with my family and I look forward all year to those visits. It was inevitable that I would use the low country for a setting for a book and I plan to do it again.
In The Color of Light, the main characters end up forming a less-than-traditional family by the end of the book. What components of family are most important to you? Are there any problems inherent in writing about family?
Unconditional love is the most important component of family to me. Regardless of how many mistakes a parent can make, everything will be okay as long as the child understands that they are loved no matter what. Jillian was such an ambivalent mother at first—but she never let Gracie know. I loved watching Jillian learn how to love both of her children. It was never a question about if—it was always about how much.
I come from a very traditional family and it’s what I usually tend to write about because it’s what I know. This book was a bit of a departure for me and I’ll admit to a little bit of trepidation as I pictured my parents reading over my shoulder as I typed. But in the end, I realize there’s very little difference between my own family and my fictional family. Where there is unconditional love, there is family.
Who are your favorite authors? Is there anyone who is particularly influential?
My two favorite authors are Margaret Mitchell and Diana Gabaldon. Their storytelling and characters are unmatched. Their books came alive for me, allowing me as a reader to be completely immersed. I strive to do the same for my readers with each book I write.
For wonderful southern voices, I turn to Harper Lee, Olive Ann Burns and Pat Conroy. Their writing can make me taste sun-warmed watermelon and feel the cracked summer asphalt under bare feet.
When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer, and when did you begin writing?
My 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Anderson, told me I should be a writer and I wanted to believe her. I’d been a huge reader ever since I learned how to read and I thought it would be fun to be a writer. But all through school, I’d always received bad marks on writing assignments due to a nearly illegible handwriting. I hated to write because of it; each word was torture and I usually ended up writing really large so I could fill a page quickly. I would either write the shortest story possible or just abruptly end it when the page ran out. It wasn’t until I learned to type in 10th grade that a whole new world opened for me. I began to enjoy writing assignments for the first time and was encouraged by many of my teachers to write. But, life got in the way. I was a business major in college, got married, and then worked in the business world until I had my first child.
I didn’t actually sit down to write my first book until I’d been out of college for eight years. I simply sat down one day and started writing. I found out that writing a book is a lot like having children—there’s never a perfect time for either. You just do it.
What is the most difficult aspect of writing, for you? What is the most rewarding? Do you have any quirky habits that you indulge when you write?
Writing the first three chapters of a book is a bit like licking glass. It’s very painful. It’s like going to a family reunion where you don’t know anybody but you’re expected to converse with a familiar knowledge. I usually have to rewrite the first three chapters once I hit chapter 10 or so because at that point I’m more familiar with my characters and I know how they should be acting/speaking and what sort of baggage they’re carrying.
My favorite part about the writing process (and I do have many) is hearing from fans. Hands down—there’s nothing better.
My most embarrassing quirky indulgence that helps me when I’m writing is usurping my son’s Game Cube and playing Pikmin. He’s more embarrassed about this than I am. But there’s something about attacking Bulborgs that really gets my creative juices flowing. Go figure.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a book entitled Stone Heart which is set in the North Georgia mountains. As with Jillian in The Color of Light, Caroline Collier is damaged and flawed but makes the most unbelievable journey to find her life again and to find forgiveness for a single event in her life that irrevocable changed it thirteen years before. There’s a few quirky characters and a mother-daughter relationship that will make any woman with a mother nod her head and say, “Oh, yes. That’s how it is.”