Stewart builds her novel slowly, unraveling truth from the ragged edges in the meeting of two protagonists.
Ninety-year-old Margaret Riley and Jennifer Young, thirty-seven, are women with secrets that burden their souls, loners
who have never fit easily into society’s ebb and flow. Margaret, a former nurse in World War II, has resided for years on a Tennessee mountain with only the occasional call to a favorite grand-niece to ease her aching sense of loneliness at the end of a long life. Often cantankerous and demanding,
she knows her demeanor is off-putting but hasn’t the discipline to curb an often impatient tongue. Noting her new neighbor across the pond, Margaret hovers between curious and ambivalent, anxious to know more about the newcomer but uncomfortable with starting a conversation that might inspire a mutual exchange of confidences.
For her part, Jennifer has chosen this rental house because it is the farthest from her former home she can manage. With four-year-old Milo bemoaning the lack of friends or school, the isolation from the familiar is balm for a woman fleeing from those who sit in judgment. Bit by bit, fragments of Jennifer’s story emerge: a long-term marriage to Tommy Carrasco, her love since high school curdled by his affairs and drunkenness, an emotional addiction she could never resist, even when Tommy’s erratic behavior became dangerous for Milo: “Her love was a cobweb and when she fought it she just wound herself tighter.” Now Jennifer is alone with her son, determined to start a new life where no one knows her story.
Eventually overwhelmed with curiosity, Margaret breaks the impasse, hiring massage therapist Jennifer on the pretext of needing treatment. Poking and prodding in an effort to learn more, Margaret shares a little of her past experiences in the war and a friendship with another nurse, Marilyn Kay. Suddenly unable to dam the tide of memories, Margaret hires Jennifer to record her spoken history: “Unburden. Confess. Those are the words I chose.” Margaret’s deepest secrets threaten to escape, Jennifer biding her time, in need of money, while tentatively attempting a friendship with Megan, mother of Milo’s new best friend, Ben, from his new preschool. Jennifer even lets herself imagine that Megan might be someone she can trust, someone with whom she can share her truth.
In beautiful, heartbreaking prose, Stewart recreates these very different landscapes, the lives of a nurse in the trenches in World War II and a woman fleeing an intolerable life with her young son. Both contemporary
(the events that bring Jennifer to the mountain) and historical (the scenes of war, the torn and broken soldiers, the bodies of the dead, an unexpected, tragic friendship) in a drama that escalates from curiosity to interference, where truth suddenly explodes, shattering what might have been and demanding an accounting.
This provocative exploration of the dual power of secrets and loneliness, while often tender and hopeful, holds as well the barbs of human failure and the miscommunication of grief, pain and fear of rejection: “Forgiveness is a terrible thing to want, because of all things on earth it is the hardest to get.” With the arrival of an unexpected visitor on the scene, Stewart drives her protagonists over the precipice, stripping them bare, exposing both shame and courage: “I know what it’s like to have a madwoman in the attic of your memory.” Despite the shocking consequences of the relationship of two women separated by generations and history, the author tells a troubling story with grace and compassion, perfectly capturing the danger of a heart remaining fallow too long.