Buckley’s intense Washington, D.C., family drama evolves on two parallel threads: the experience of two sets of parents and their daughters, Arden and Rory, cousins subject to the same emotional struggles as sisters, their lives just as entangled. Natalie and Theo Falcone have three children: twin boys, Oliver and Henry, six, and Arden, eighteen. Theo’s brother Vince and his French-born wife, Gabrielle, have only one daughter--Rory, also eighteen. The lively, extroverted Rory and quieter, artistic Arden have been close since childhood, though
the frictions of adolescence--and a need for independence--are driving them apart. Rory plans to attend Harvard, Arden to study at UCLA in California.
A serious rift in the family dynamic has changed everyone’s plans.
A financial crisis reshapes the futures of both families, the restaurant co-owned by Nat and Vince struggling for survival, the cousins’ college dreams in tatters. Amid bitterness and disappointment, both families have had to make painful adjustments, Arden and Rory currently attending East Maryland University in lieu of their preferred campuses.
On the night of Nat and Theo Falcone’s nineteenth wedding anniversary, they receive a call that begins an agonizing life-and-death vigil: there has been a fire in the girls’ dorm room. To escape the flames, both jumped, severely injured and in comas. Their sterile rooms in the ICU are side by side, two sets of parents anxiously hovering over beloved daughters.
Buckley begins the novel from Natalie’s perspective, an adult explanation of the current family conflict, the years of living closely together, the cousins’ attachment to one another: “You have to be careful, I’d warned Arden. But she hadn’t been careful enough.” Meanwhile, a detective hovers at the periphery of their new reality, trying to determine the cause of the fire, which also claimed the life of a young man. Only Rory and Arden can answer questions about the fire’s origin, describe the circumstances that led to their grievous injuries and the young man’s death. Unfortunately, none of the victims can articulate the events that brought them to this dark place.
The momentum builds with Arden and Rory’s stories, each providing an intimate view of a close-knit, albeit complicated family, where fortunes are tied together by a joint business venture and cousins are as emotionally entangled as siblings, inseparable, yet each yearning for a separate identity. This is a drama defined by years of deep affection and bitter rivalry, the recent stresses creating an unexpected rift that each girl chooses to deal with in her own fashion. When financial issues force the girls back into the familiar mold, too closely bound together, tragedy erupts, both sets of parents oblivious to their daughter’s difficulties.
It is a powerful emotional drama. Natalie’s descriptions of family life stand in sharp contrast to the scathing stories told by Arden and Rory. While the adults attempt to address their issues responsibly, the nearly-adult cousins are in a more precarious situation, the college disappointments too raw, the sharing of a dorm room at EMU too intimate, and the attentions of a young man--the one who died--too volatile. Normalcy destroyed, two couples stand helplessly beside their silent daughters' beds facing the most terrible of realities: their beautiful, lively girls silenced, Sleeping Beauties with no Prince to wake them. In a lifetime freighted with secrets, the bond between mother and daughter dictates the delicate balance between love and hate, sending Arden and Rory reeling toward a moment of reckoning.