Published June 7, 2005
The Color of Light
Available Now in Paperback
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An emotionally moving novel of a woman in search of a new beginning and a man haunted by the past—from the New York Times bestselling author of the Tradd Street novels.
At thirty-two, Jillian Parrish finally finds the courage to put herself in the driver’s seat of her life. Pregnant and recently divorced, she and her seven-year-old daughter find refuge and solace on Pawleys Island, South Carolina—Jillian’s only source of happy childhood memories. Summers spent at her grandmother’s beach house had been Jillian’s sanctuary from indifferent parents—until her best friend Lauren Mills disappeared, never to be found.
Linc Rising, Lauren’s boyfriend and Jillian’s confidant, had been a suspect in Lauren’s disappearance. Jillian had never doubted his innocence—but because her parents had whisked her back home to Atlanta, she never got a chance to tell him. Now, a resentful Linc is back on Pawleys Island—renovating the old Mills house. And as ghosts of the past are resurrected, and as Jillian’s daughter begins having eerie conversations with an imaginary friend named Lauren, Jillian and Linc will uncover the truth about Lauren’s disappearance and about the feelings they have buried for sixteen years…
“A story as rich as a coastal summer…Dark secrets, heartache, a magnificent South Carolina setting and a great love story.”
—New York Times bestselling author Deborah Smith
“As lush as the Lowcountry…unexpected and magical.”
—New York Times bestselling author Patti Callahan Henry
“An engaging read with a delicious taste of the mysterious.”
—New York Times bestselling author Haywood Smith
With quiet alabaster poise, a great white egret moved from behind tall grass, standing in the shallows of the marsh creek. It craned its long, crooked neck over the surface, searching for food, oblivious to its own gloriousness.
Grace slid her hand into Jillian’s, her skin warm and smooth.
Startled, Jillian looked at the small hand clasped in hers, then up into the pale brown eyes of her daughter and at the smattering of freckles on her upturned nose as if she were seeing this child for the first time. She cleared her throat. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Grace kicked out her feet and Jillian noticed the old red sparkly shoes again. The same ones that were a size too small and had already been thrown away once. She opened her mouth to say something about them, but the softness of her daughter’s profile as she stared at the snowy egret made her close her mouth without saying anything. Jillian turned back to look at the beautiful white bird, her own legs swinging in rhythm with Grace’s.
Grace whispered, “Is this your favoritist place in the whole wide world?”
Jillian felt a small smile start at each corner of her mouth. Without taking her eyes off the egret, she said, “Yes, I believe it is.”
Grace squeezed her hand a little tighter. “Mine, too.”
They sat for a long time without speaking, holding hands and watching the beauty of the marsh unfold. The osprey set sail out of its nest, its wings in the telltale “v” and its underside a brilliant white. Madly flapping its wings, it soared across the water then crashed feet first into the creek, lifting its struggling prey in its talons. It settled on a branch of a bald cypress tree and began to eat, allowing the creek to return to its low buzz of insects and the occasional slap of water.
“She and her mate return each March to that nest. They mate for life, you know.”
Jillian and Grace turned at the sound of Linc’s voice. He wore sunglasses so she couldn’t see his eyes, but she felt his gaze on her. “What an admirable quality,” she murmured while trying to find the best way to get herself into a standing position.
Linc reached her in two long strides and put his hands in hers to pull her up. Brushing off the seat of her maternity pants, she said, “Thanks. Hope I didn’t throw your back out.”
Black sunglasses stared back at her. “No problem. I once helped haul a beached pilot whale back out to sea. You’re nothing compared to that.”
She scrutinized him for a moment, feeling slightly stunned but her mouth twitching anyway.
He frowned. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.”
Jillian waved a hand at him. “Yes you did, and don’t apologize. That was pretty funny.” She stared closely into his face, trying to see past the dark glasses. “You always had a great sense of humor and I hate to see it hidden under all that grumpiness.”
“Hi, Linc! We saw an egret,” Grace piped up, sparing him a response.
Jillian grimaced. “That’s Mr. Rising to you, Gracie.”
Linc lifted Grace and set her on her feet. “I don’t mind.”
Gracie looked up, her expression serious. “I know not to call him Linc in front of other people because he doesn’t want them to know his real name. I promise I won’t forget.”
Startled, Linc looked at Jillian who shrugged. “She hears everything. I’ve long since stopped trying to censor things from her.”
Gracie beamed up at him and Linc sent her a reluctant grin before returning his attention to Jillian. “Lessie Beaumont’s here with Janie Mulligan. I was about to give them a tour of my house and Lessie wanted to know if she could get inside yours while she’s here.”
Jillian nodded. “Sure,” she said, as she bent to gather up the towel.
“I was replacing the wooden sill in the front bedroom and I saw you and Gracie cross the road.”
Jillian squinted at him. “You don’t have to explain yourself, Linc. I didn’t think you were spying on us.”
He looked at her again as if he didn’t know what to say. Jillian watched as Grace stuck a hand into Linc’s. “Come on. Let’s go find Lessie before somebody sees me and alerts Sea World.”
Jillian slid him a sidelong glance and was sure this time that a full-fledged smile was brewing on his lips. With her own smile she faced the twin houses, each frozen against the horizon as if in a silent shrug, and wondered anew how such structures of timber and mortar could survive for so long with the constant onslaught of ocean winds and time.
A small hand crept into hers and she looked down at the child beside her. Jillian suddenly thought of the ancient dunes that had sheltered the houses for nearly two centuries, taking the brunt of storms and the ocean’s encroachment upon the shore, protecting the old houses in their solid, sentinel arms. She squeezed her daughter’s hand as the child in her womb kicked again and for a brief moment Jillian thought she understood something that had been denied her for a lifetime and remained elusive still. But when she looked down into Gracie’s eyes, she felt the first glimmer of hope.
Jillian watched as Linc slowed his pace, waiting for them to catch up. She continued moving forward, toward the old houses, finding an odd comfort in the tall shadows they cast.
Linc waited as Jillian and Grace approached, wondering if he had just witnessed something startling by the expressions on their faces. He looked away, not wanting to be more involved than he already was.
“Have you spoken to your husband, yet?” His words were hard and clipped, as if constructing a deliberate barrier between the past few moments of companionship and the distance he wanted to keep between them.
Jillian blinked before lowering her head, the brim of her hat hiding her face. “He called again this morning, as a matter of fact. Couldn’t get to the phone on time so he left a message on the machine. Mentioned something about him and his new wife going to Bali for the week. I sure appreciated him letting me know.”
He started to say something, unable to let Jillian bypass the topic, but felt his hand grabbed by Grace.
“Linc’s a funny name,” she said, swinging her arm.
Linc’s eyes narrowed as he glanced down at her, wondering yet again how she had an adult’s ability to know when to change the subject. Although she apparently hadn’t yet mastered the ability to know which subject would be appropriate to change it to.
“Gracie, why don’t you run ahead and feed Spot. We’re going to be going out this afternoon and I’d hate for him to starve.”
Grace shot back a knowing glance at her mother before letting go of Linc’s hand and skipping away.
“It is an odd name.” Her eyes held a challenge, as if welcoming the chance to retaliate against his mention of her ex-husband.
He felt his face flush, the embarrassment over the origins of his name flooding over him as if it were the first time he’d heard it. “Right. And Jilly-bean isn’t.”
She stiffened beside him and he suddenly felt like a small boat navigating a rip tide. He heard her take a deep breath before she surprised him by answering his unasked question. “I…I didn’t really care what she called me when she first learned to talk. As long as it wasn’t ‘mama.'”
The hurt and pain emanated from her like rippling waves, making him cringe. He hadn’t meant to do that do her. His long-held anger was easily dislodged, its escape effortlessly nudged.
He held her arm, making her stop and face him. “I never knew my father. The only thing my mother remembers about him was that I was conceived in the back of his Lincoln. That’s where my name comes from.”
She didn’t recoil or make excuses. She just regarded him gently with soft brown eyes. “Why are you telling me this now? You would never tell Lauren and me when we asked.”
He tried not to flinch at the mention of Lauren’s name. “To make us even.” He hoped she couldn’t read that for the lie it was. There was something about her that brought out the confessor in him. Maybe it was her maternal shape or maybe it was that deep understanding between them that hadn’t dissipated in nearly two decades. Whatever it was, it didn’t sit comfortably on his shoulders but he was powerless to consider her without sympathy.
He tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. “Hold on to me. It’ll make it easier to walk.”
Evading her probing look, he led her off the pier and across the street toward Lessie and Janie, now standing by Lessie’s parked Buick. Jillian leaned on him slightly and he promised himself that this would be the last time he’d help her. But before the thought had even been completed, she pulled away, walking away from him, and calling out a greeting to the women who awaited them. She straightened her shoulders and moved slowly, picking her steps carefully.
Linc stopped, watching her. I don’t need you either, Jillian. Slowly, he followed, denying the unsettled feeling that suddenly seemed to clutch at him and propel him after her.
- 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.”