What is the price of one woman’s self-knowledge? By the end of this novel, even the foolish notions of Charlotte Tradescome are forgiven as she is forced to accommodate lowered expectations and the sense of place that defines her. Marriage to scholarly Henry Tradescome, twenty years her senior, has tried Charlotte’s patience: “Loving him was like nursing a wounded animal.”
Of a staunch New England temperament, Henry’s bout with childhood polio has caused an excess of reserve, a caution against hope. His wife is an antidote to such a sour approach to the world, if a somewhat trying one, Charlotte’s belief in changing Henry intransigent. When Henry and Charlotte move from Manhattan to Cape Cod and the site of Henry’s childhood, Oyster Creek, Charlotte begins to comprehend the compromises and demands of marriage, her yearning for romance and how actions beget unexpected consequences.
To finance their simple lifestyle, Charlotte sells off part of Henry’s inherited property, starting a chain of events that will challenge her place in Oyster Creek and introduce the gentrification that has begun to change the New England coastal land. Three-year-old Fiona clings to her mother, Henry caught up in his writing, content to let Charlotte define the nature of their new home: “The pity was his blinded heart, tap-tapping its grim path through the gorgeous world.” Charlotte is soon in love with local color and personalities, including the oystermen who work their beds when the tide pulls out.
Schmidt captures the change of pace from city to shore, the daily rewards of hard work, Fiona’s joy in the fascinating world of nature’s bounty, and Charlotte’s gradual realization that her assumptions about marriage have been childish. From early days and Charlotte’s affection for her intellectual and emotionally-stunted husband to a blooming and dangerous romance with Darryl Stead, a man shedding his past mistakes and managing his limitations, Charlotte matures from a naïve woman to one who appreciates her place in this environment.
The characters are pure New England: hardy, stubborn, complicated family histories from generation to generation, the exception the brash new owner of the property next to Henry’s, who builds his house like a castle and brooks no interference with his rights. Tough as it is to make a place among those who have always lived in the tidal basin, Charlotte learns the price of belonging and the stigma of being an outsider, let alone the cause of litigation.
It is Charlotte who has instigated the legal challenges of the sale of adjoining land, unleashing inevitable clashes between old and new, the livelihood of the oystermen threatened by their rude new neighbor. Atmospheric and dramatic, even the impetuous Charlotte is subdued by her environment, her demands made right-sized by the lessons she is forced to learn. Even Charlotte can be forgiven her carelessness in the end, chastened by experience, appreciating precious moments and the life she has chosen.