A lifelong connection binds the fates of three friends in Provincetown, Rhode Island, begun in a childhood tragedy, sustaining them for years until they are pulled in different directions with wounds that cannot heal. The night that nine-year-old Gus Silva’s father kills his mother in a drunken rage is seared into the boy’s psyche, Gus haunted by his inability to save his mother. That same night, perched on the widow’s walk of her home while her father, family physician Nick Costas, sleeps below, nine-year-old Hallie senses that something momentous is happening, something terrible. Later, when Gus refuses to speak, Hallie brings him back to the world, a little girl delivering two fish in a plastic bag and a copy of David Copperfield.
While Gus’s best friend, Neil Gallagher, is unable to reach him, Hallie’s quiet patience seduces the boy from his sorrow, the three becoming inseparable. In Provincetown, where Portuguese descendants carry on the traditions of former generations, everyone knows everyone else’s business, including the romance that blooms between star footballer Gus Silva and Hallie Costa and the aspirations of the talented Neil Gallagher, who finds expression for his feelings on the stage, stardom certain. They’ve all been planning for the future. Gus and Hallie put off college for a year to live together. Neil is ready to break into professional acting. But the once-unbreakable bond that has held the three so firmly together is shattered on Prom Night with an ugly scene that severs each from the others, leaving each to travel a different path through life than they had imagined.
Francis follows her characters from childhood through adolescence and the hollow years that yawn before them as fate takes them in separate directions. With ties so deeply entrenched, the love between Gus and Hallie can never really be extinguished. It takes on a different form as he pursues a religious vocation and she accepts the loss of old dreams, replacing them with a future born of her father’s inspiration, a man revered for his refusal to judge others, his lifetime motto displayed on an office wall: “If you judge people, you don’t have time to love them.” For Hallie, hope is reborn with a loving husband and her work as a physician. She keeps in touch with Neil by phone as his acting career flags after a series of bad decisions.
As it did that night when Gus’s life was forever changed by the loss of his mother, fate strikes again. Gus stands once more at the center of controversy as he is indicted for the murder of Ava, a parishioner who has come to him for help in a troubled marriage. The evidence is circumstantial but irrefutable. Once again Gus is tested, Hallie watching helplessly, her life once again in flux. Ironically it is Mila, the lonely daughter of dead Ava, who appears in unexpectedly in Hallie’s life, forcing the young doctor to remember what she learned at her father’s knee: lessons of love, forgiveness and hope. Returning to Provincetown, surrounding herself with friends old and new—even the perpetually unhappy Mila—Hallie defines herself anew, trusting in the people and places of her childhood.
Told in the voices of Hallie and Gus, the story comes full circle with the addition of Mila’s few chapters. The lonely, troubled girl is determined to hate the man who killed her mother but thrown off course by the depth of suffering she sees in his eyes and his understanding of her deepest fears. Mila expands the novel beyond its limitations, a love story gone awry elevated to a poignant drama of humanity caught in the throes of an uncertain fate, only the embrace of loved ones certain and healing. For these orphans, family is without boundaries, people embraced for the goodness of their hearts regardless of the turbulence of their tortured souls. In spite of the damage that might have been rendered by a scathing resentment, while Gus and Hallie do not have the happy ending young love might proscribe, they overcome impossible odds, drawing others into their circle and proving the endurance of the human heart.