Vida, a single mother, has spent considerable time and energy building a life for herself and her son, Peter. A teacher of English classics, Vida lives with Peter in Fayer, an island off the coast of New England. Over the last fifteen years, Vida has immersed herself in the classics, teaching her students the lessons of great literature. When Tom Belou, a widower with three children, asks Vida to marry him, she says yes, unknowingly catapulting herself into a situation that will unravel her past.
As the Iranian hostage situation plays out, Vida and Peter move to their new home, intruders in the lives of three children not finished mourning their mother. Almost overnight, Vida is the mother of four. Uncomfortable in this ill-fitting new role, Vida becomes hostage to her own fear, an unexpected reaction to a history long denied.
Used to the seclusion of the last fifteen years on Fayer Island, Vida’s days have always been carefully constructed to contain her and Peter’s small but manageable world. Their new home is in Norsett, a more depressed town on the mainland littered with abandoned processing plants. Tom’s children do not warm up to Vida, who has never been comfortable as a mother. Speaking to Peter, they refer to Vida as “your mother… as if they were trying to give her back.”
Her first day back at school, Vida is teaching her tenth-graders Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles, a novel that has special significance to Vida. Soon she is hiding behind her work, alienated from her son and new husband and unable to bridge the widening emotional gap. Even the patient Tom Belou is frazzled by his new wife’s strange behavior, her distance and increased drinking to get through their evenings together.
Peter wants desperately to be a part of his new family, but he has his own problems, virtually friendless and unable to forge a comfortable identity. Fueled by his mother’s distance and his own sense of displacement, Peter, who has never known anything about his father, comes loose from his very tentative moorings. No matter how carefully Tom approaches his wife, Vida’s insecurities become more unmanageable, throwing her into a panic.
But just when this woman’s thoughtlessness grows unbearable, we are reminded what terrible secret Vida has carried throughout Peter’s childhood and adolescence. Mother and son are drawn together, as if forged together but pulling apart because they cannot communicate their needs to each other. Before their lives can be recovered, Vida must confront a past that is destroying her future.
King uses her protagonists’ isolation (both Vida and Peter’s) to parallel the lessons Vida is teaching her students, but these safe literary walls crumble, leaving mother and son exposed. What begins with a vaguely irritating English teacher temporizing over her decisions ends with an emotional expose of a mother’s ungovernable fears and the courage to speak her truth.