Brookline parents Elizabeth and Henry Furey are shattered when their fifteen-year-old son Hugh inexplicably goes missing. Obsessed with fellow schoolmate Emily Twickler, the youthful Hugh vanishes one night, never to return.
Torn apart by the disappearance, Henry turns his whole life over to the search, spending most of his time in his basement office, the walls covered with newspaper articles, police reports, and lists of words hastily crossed out with Hugh's name glaring out from every page.
Elizabeth falls to pieces, ensconcing herself in her bedroom, covering the windows with bed sheets, determined to shut out the world. Their two younger children, Lena and Owen, are set adrift, this fractured family corroding their bright expectations
as they are forced to shoulder the burden of their parents' tragedy.
Five years on: Hugh is never declared dead but the search for him is inexorably abandoned.
Although his name is never mentioned in the house, his things are still kept in banker's boxes in the basement.
Hugh was an amateur photographer, and Lena carries his camera around with her, developing his pictures, first of his family, then of his friends and his places - these pictures
are all she has have left of him. While Owen was too young to remember his older brother, his spirit comes to Owen in his dreams as a type of "winged half-naked creature, guarding the leftovers of his family."
Taking a huge risk, Owen decides to share his inner life with Danny, a boy he's started hanging out with from school. Secretly attracted to his friend, it is Danny who asks Owen to join him in "beating off." Owen is filled with an unfamiliar thrill that is part of arousal and fear, yet his sexual experimentation masks an eventual betrayal by Danny.
Owen is shamed; the urge to confess things he suspects is some category of sin. Naturally, Danny is appalled, unbelieving, and also judgmental.
As the schoolyard bullies turn up the heat, poor young Owen becomes an inevitable victim of teenage homophobia.
Lena's path leads her to cut and dye her hair and experiment with drugs. She begins to hang out in Harvard Square and meets Sebastian, a young punk rocker who turns the charm on. She helps him sell drugs and eventually becomes truant from school, missing one class after another.
Carey delves deep below the fragile facade of this family, questioning their deepest yearnings, hopes and uncertainties. Set in the mid 1980s, the narrative courses around Lena and Owen as they try to keep everything bottled up inside; their happiness seems so very long ago, their innocence and virtue a thing of the past.
The author instinctively brings to life the trials and tribulations and also the rebelliousness of adolescence. Owen reverts into himself, terrified of going to school and confronting his nemesis, and of his own sexuality. Lena blames herself for not doing enough to stop Hugh from walking out of the house on that late, wintry night; she can't bring herself to admit the truth that she was the one who let him go.
In the end, the Furey family is left much the wiser for all the emotional suffering they are forced to endure. Hugh will probably never return, yet this ends up being a kind of catalyst for change. And as Lena and Owen's journey reaches its inevitable heartbreaking climax, the reverberations for the Fureys remain achingly profound.