In Rhode Island in the summer of 1965, thirty-three-year-old school teacher Rachel Shattuck returns to Snow Island to care for her father who has been injured in an accident. Rachel's mother died a year earlier, and she is still haunted by thoughts of Phoebe, memories too fresh to ignore. The divorced Rachel is torn, worried that her marriage breakup contributed to her mother's fatal heart attack.
Back on the island, Rachel relives her strict Catholic upbringing, resenting an overbearing father and a childhood of obligations to siblings. The past assails her wherever she turns, but when Rachel discovers her mother's diaries, begun in 1930, she views Phoebe Shattuck in a different light, a young woman with dreams and aspirations much the same as her own.
The lessons from mother to daughter are poignant, brought to life on the handwritten pages where Phoebe pours out her heart, an invaluable gift to a young woman who desperately longs for a mother's comfort. The diaries capture the spirit of Phoebe's compulsive rush into marriage and the realities she faces, disclosing her secrets and uncertainties.
Phoebe's scathing honesty reveals a conflicted woman faced with impossible choices, her diaries attesting to the contradictions that are her reality. The diaries are shocking but ultimately palliative to a young woman who has blamed her father for most of the disappointments she harbors. Religion is significant in Phoebe's struggle to be a good wife, prayer often her only solace. Her daughter owns this legacy as well, her faith deeply ingrained, riddled with guilt carried since childhood.
When the novel is devoted to Phoebe's years with Nate, their marriage and the birth of their children, the writing achieves authenticity, the characters more fully fleshed and believable. Phoebe's life is the heart of the novel, the disappointments and rewards of the years on the island. But make no mistake, this is women's fiction, though not chick lit by any means.
The scenes from Evening Ferry are familiar Americana of forty years ago, soon after the Civil Rights Movement and at the beginning of the Vietnam War. Reading this novel is like watching an early Technicolor movie, the scenes a little too well-staged, the protagonist carving out a niche of personal identity, although Rachel carries her individuality like a burden.
The island is entrenched in old habits, stubbornly rejecting change, which will doubtless be the focus of the next volume of the Shattuck family saga. Part two of this trilogy sets the stage for Rachel Shattuck's continuing coming-of-age. In a country deeply divided by the Vietnam conflict, Evening Ferry is the calm before the storm.