One woman’s fantasy becomes reality in Haines’ take on friendship and the nature of love. When Jane walks away from her perfect family one early summer morning, leaving her childhood best friend to step into her place, no one is more surprised than Mattie. An appraiser, Mattie has come to the Santa Barbara coast from Chicago to the home of Jane’s grandmother, Franny, unexpectedly deceased.
At the scene of the girls’ first meeting and subsequent years of friendship, their relationship has orbited around Jane’s successful marriage to an accomplished and desirable man and her two daughters, four-year-old Mona and fourteen-year-old Livvie. Long-buried memories fill this home, Jane and Mattie’s blooming adolescence acted out against the California coast, their adulthood firmly cemented in the rituals of Jane’s family.
Suddenly, Mattie finds herself in the arms of the man she has always loved, but under impossible circumstances: “I understood the mind’s attraction to the poison wish.” Jane’s brash act does nothing more than throw the family into chaos; there is no time when the absent Jane isn’t present, burdening them all with unanswered questions.
Upstaging even her grandmother’s death, perhaps Jane is grieving, or perhaps her motives are more vindictive than they first appear. In any case, all are hostage to Jane’s intemperate actions. Mattie, for her part, does not judge, and tries mightily to avoid the attraction to Mike. Meanwhile the family is thrown into stasis, unable to move forward as long as Jane remains absent, although she calls Mattie, sometimes late at night, as though to gauge her friend’s success.
Chapter by chapter, Haines dissects the complex relationship of two women who have become enmeshed over the years: Mattie watching Jane’s happy family from the outside, the early days of Franny’s generosity, accepting the troubled Mattie into her family circle. It is Jane’s motivation that is the most fascinating, clearly not as amiable as it would appear, Mattie skewered on the reality of her affection for Mike and a concern for the well-being of the children, who are suffering, missing their mother.
The disintegration of the family and Mattie’s forever-changed relationship to Jane is explored on many levels, in her interactions with the children, especially the teenager. Mattie does what she is best at - she comforts those who are in need, including Mike. But she was never meant to have this family, nor did Jane intend it. Mattie’s mature reaction to her changed circumstances is answered by Jane’s petulant accusation that Mattie has intruded on her life.
Given the superior quality of the prose, I was inclined to give this novel five stars, but decided on four: the sheer weight of the dissolution becomes overwhelming, even with Mattie’s growing awareness that the friendship is not as substantial as she had believed. There is simply too much damage, as reflected in the carelessness with which the characters treat their surroundings, oblivious to all but their own self-centered concerns: “We left candy wrappers on countertops and coffee tables, strewn over rugs.” Just a few steps back from the ledge would have made this book nearly perfect. I look forward to this author’s next endeavor.