Robinson has the soul of a natural storyteller, exploring heartbreaking family relationships in her novel with realistic dialog and a sense of place that defines the physical and emotional boundaries between her characters. Set in Boston and the remote terrain of Beach Plum Island near Newburyport, Massachusetts, the story begins with the death of Bob Barrett. His wife, Katy, teenage daughter Gigi, and older daughters Ava and Elaine are left to mourn his passing. In a family torn by divorce from a troubled first wife, the uneasy alliance between old and new ruptures at the gathering at the house after the funeral, Elaine unable to keep her bitterness from spilling over in an inappropriate drunken toast. Though her sister Ava apologizes, the incident illustrates the fragile territory tread by old family and new. Barrett’s urgent aside to Gigi on his death bed—“I want your brother to know the truth”—goes unremarked, the family overwhelmed by grief.
The drama unfolds on two generational levels in the household on Beach Plum Island where Ava, a teacher and successful potter, is raising her two sons after a divorce. Sixteen-year-old Evan and seventeen-year-old Sam are like two oversized puppies, filling her days with friends and the bass beat of their band, the hours spent in her studio a refuge from the overflow of youthful energy. Ava’s biggest regret is the tension between herself and the younger Elaine, an unmarried professional who has not been able to put the unhappiness of their childhood behind her. Their mother finally at peace, Elaine cannot forgive her father or Katy, the woman who stole her father’s love. Ava has embraced the role of peacemaker, the frail thread between one family and another. Meanwhile, Elaine throws herself into a successful tech career and the easy distraction of one night stands.
Since the emotional scene when both adult Barrett daughters enter their remodeled childhood home to pay homage to their deceased father, the silent rooms are buried in a pall of grief, Katy unable to function. Gigi, scrambling to put the pieces of her world together, eschews the stables where she is forced to endure riding instruction for forays to Beach Plum Island, where she is discovered by Ava outside the studio. In measured, poignant encounters, an unexpected bond is forged between two sisters made stronger by an awakening relationship, their tentative beginning contrasted with Elaine’s tragic attempts to deal with long-simmering issues. In a series of conversations, confrontations and complications that test the mettle of each character and her interactions with other siblings, old secrets are laid bare, put finally to rest, the search for a long-lost brother begun.
Robinson’s deft portrayal of family interactions gives this novel its real-life patina, conversations between sisters tainted by painful memories, the importance of place in soothing a troubled soul, the infectious enthusiasm of teenagers challenging adult responses, the burdens of regret and myriad opportunities for forgiveness that reside in the human heart. Given the agonizing dysfunction endured by these characters over the years, one cannot begrudge the happy resolution of problems, the finding of love or the hope for a harmonious future, a father’s death initiating a new beginning.