Is it ever too late to live the life you always wanted? On a crowded beach amid a cluttered heap of pink skin, Gene, the hero of Dion's lyrical tale, is in the process of grieving. As he picks his way down to the water through a maze of blankets and discarded cups and scavenger birds, Gene recalls one of the last memorable fights between him and his wife, Maida. For a fleeting moment, he spies a woman who looks strikingly like her. Even when the illusion is dispelled, there remains in Gene a "reckless hope" that Maida is alive somewhere, that the person who died in hospital wasn't her and that Maida is somehow making her way back to him.
The scene is just one of Gene's long musings about his lifelong marriage to Aida. There are things Gene never told his wife and things he didn't ask her. As he ruminates about his outward life, considers his 'life within life," the "tucked away life." Because Maida's sudden death has emotionally fractured him, he's left the aftermath to his best friends, Ed and Gayle Donnelly, who for the first weeks appeared whenever Gene needed "a competent stand-in." Though Gene seems to be coping admirably, he's privately obsessing over daughter Dary's solitary, lonely life, his granddaughter Annie, and his housekeeper, Adele, who comes to his house three times a week, dropping into his life from nowhere and then withdrawing just as abruptly.
But no couple has played a more important role in he and Maida's lives than Ed and Gayle. For years, the two families have vacationed together at the Donnelly's property on Fisher Lake. Beyond the summer rituals of family happiness--the swimming and boating and fishing--the two couples have pretty much mirrored each other's lives as the years have passed. Maida and Gene's daughter Dary was born a year after Ed and Gayle's sons, Michael and Colin. To outsiders, it seems as though the Ashes and Donnellys are an extension of each other.
Indeed, Fisher Lake's breathtaking beauty is a solution for whatever troubles burden Gene and Maida and the Donnellys as they seek to make lives for themselves in the small town of Colton, New Hampshire. The years that follow are busy and exhausting. Like most marriages, Gene and Maida's early days are filled with exhausting flashes of sex and love. Gene observes Dary as she grows older and begins to grow his shoe-sales business from a loan given to him by Maida's father. There are always summers at Fisher Lake to fall back on: "because really summers at the Lake belonged to children."
Steering her lyrical message of love and loss and the strange turns that life makes, Dion shows how life can often "double back as it dogs forward." Maida stays embedded in Gene's memory, shaping his projections, desires and dreams, her death awakening long-dormant feelings and memories he feels he has a duty to record and transmit. What if Ed had changed his mind about introducing him to Maida? What sort of career might Gene have pursued without her? Dion explores Gene's internal game over how different his life could have become until the arbitrary and brutal swiftness of Maida's death changed him forever.
In a series of delicate vignettes from Gene and Ed's time at college, where Ed first introduces Gene to Maida (while Ed courts Gayle), Dion proffers an intimate perspective of a small life lived in big steps. Though the vow that Gene and Maida made to each other was tacit and enduring, since her death, Gene feels "something sharper too, something like anger." He begins to harbor "a silly but nonetheless honest delusion that once in a while loving someone should be enough to get what you want...love was not enough--it was never enough." In wintery isolation in Ed's cabin at Fisher Lake, a sad and broken Gene reads Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. The novel causes him to see that it's too late to recapture Maida's lost love. From his diminished hopes to his trials of life, Gene's lesson is to finally acknowledge the fragility of his own happiness.
Dion's deceptively simple story explores "the warped bundle" over Gene's heart, how his memories spin and whirl, continually imprinting the passage of his sorrows, fears and regrets. A gorgeously written story of time and relationships--those we have and those we want--Dion weaves Gene's reminiscences together to create simple yet interesting moments as he struggles to do the right and decent thing with the woman he once loved but who is now gone.