The usual anticipations of adolescence are abruptly curtailed for twelve-year-old Florine Gilham when her beloved mother, Carlie, goes missing on an annual holiday with a friend in coastal Massachusetts. Basking in the beauty and enthusiasm of her young mother, Florine draws images of her own future from the woman who is the center of her world, her lobster-fisherman father captive as well to Carlie’s charms. When Carlie disappears without a trace, father and daughter are thrown into limbo, neither able to find purchase, especially as time passes and the authorities have no clue about Carlie’s fate.
Florine settles into restless rebellion, seeking solace frequently at her paternal grandmother’s home as the arguments escalate between father and daughter. Wen her despairing father seeks respite in alcohol and the arms of a former flame, Florine cannot forgive this weakness. Though his drinking has near paralyzed him and the old girlfriend restores some amount of balance to his shattered existence, Florine cannot accept what she believes is a blatant betrayal of her mother’s memory. As months pass, Florine’s resolve hardens, most of her personal belongings moved into Grand’s house. Her father and his girlfriend settle into domesticity, making overtures to the scornful Florine, overtures which are always rejected.
It falls to Florine to sort through the detritus of a once-imagined life turned to ash, facing a future without Carlie’s humor or guidance on the confusing nature of male-female relations. Rebellion and rage allow Florine to survive her terrible grief and confusion, Grand ever the steady rock to sooth and comfort in times of the most debilitating anguish.
One afternoon, in desperation, Florine throws Grand’s precious ruby heart into the cold blue sea, hoping her hysterical sacrifice will be sufficient to assuage an angry God, only to realize that, like her mother, the heart is lost. In the same way, the young woman is tossed into the unknown without the anchor that has taught her how to be in the world. The author accomplishes this portrait of loss and survival with compassion and tenderness, the long slumber of the spirit and the demands of a life harboring no pretensions, nostalgia or sentiment.
Very real personal conflicts are part of Florine’s journey as the years go by: her feelings towards her father; fading memories of Carlie’s laughing face; Grand’s unavoidable aging; and a growing affection for a childhood friend thwarted by his relationship with a determined girlfriend. Defined as much by her interactions with her grandmother, three best friends and her father, Florine draws strength from the familiar and the intimate landscape of her childhood, the pounding ocean, a living provided by the sea, Grand’s vegetable garden and fragrant loaves of bread. Ultimately Florine discovers that though she may no longer bask in Carlie’s vibrant presence, her mother lives on in her heart, never to be banished to fate.