In the summer of 1973, young Jamie feels an unsteady mixture of delight and hesitance when her dear uncle Raymond tells her that her older cousin Fawn Delacorte will be flying in from Phoenix and staying with them for summer at their home in Moline, Illinois. Raymond doesn't really elaborate on the reasons Fawn is coming, only to say that according to Fawn's mother, Camille, the girl is currently "at a loose end," and that a companion for the season is certainly something that could be of benefit to both the girls.
Shy and somewhat self-effacing, Jamie considers herself to be "the tragic girl," the one who keeps her asthma inhaler in her lunch box, who reads too much and who spends too much time alone. She doesn't know quite what to make of Fawn when she and Raymond pick her up from O'Hare International Airport where she suddenly appears at the arrival gate, looking crisp and shiny like a "type of magic potion, a walking and talking human elixir."
Here's poor Jamie in her denim jumper with its fat plastic buttons and her suntan pantyhose pooling at her knees, feeling dowdy and provincial in the face of Fawn's present to her, a groovy new purse, "breath-mint white, the size of an apple with a long leather strap," and with her hair gleaming and immaculate, and her long and lanky legs looking so striking. But Jamie senses promise here, someone who can hopefully be everything that Fawn needs and wants.
In the days after Fawn's arrival, nothing and everything happens. The steadfast Raymond returns to work, leaving the girls to each other. Clearly, Jamie wants Fawn to become her best and most treasured friend with all the ferocity that she can muster. Almost like a force of nature, "a neutron star, pulling everything her way," this older and unadulteratedly glamorous girl becomes someone with whom Jamie can talk to for the first time in years.
When they sunbathe together on the side of the house, Fawn is totally free with her forbidden secrets, and their days become filled with endless popular music and television shows. Jamie even finds herself dressing for Fawn's approval, and parting her hair the way Fawn instructs.
In the end, Fawn seems so certain of herself and of the world at large that Jamie just feels relieved to be guided by her, trusting Fawn's sense of things.
Just as Fawn and Jamie forge this new and exciting connection, Raymond reflects on his own life and the story of Jamie's mother, Suzette,
on how Jamie ended up coming to live with her uncle in Moline. Eight years earlier, Suzette, a damaged and insecure soul, spent much of her short life running from ridiculous choices, mired in willing self-destructiveness. Over the years, there
have been endless boyfriends, bankruptcies, and the Dexedrine that has kept her thin and brutally optimistic: "the girl's such trouble," more than once remarks Raymond's best friend, Leon.
Though she is considered bad news, a high-risk, and a hard luck case, Raymond can never quite walk away from his beloved sister, even after all the mistakes; "it wasn't easy to go on caring about Suzette, but sometimes love wasn't easy." But now, with Jamie finally entrusted to his care and Fawn leading her astray,
the images of Suzette's hardscrabble life suddenly begin to manifest itself in
her daughter. Certainly for Jamie, the images of her mother loom large on the horizon "like a cloud of worry or dread or longing."
When a drunken joyride to Chicago goes terribly wrong and a school friend of Jamie's goes missing, Jamie's friendship with Fawn is finally tested to the maximum. Like her mother before her, things come pretty far and fast with the boys, the drinking and hanging out with local rock bands. All the while, Fawn
continues to manipulate and test Jamie's sense of power, "like a dazzling and terrifying spider." Fawn knows exactly what she needs to do to get what she wants in every instance.
In truly stunning prose, author Paula McLain imbues her novel with such a beautiful sense of time and place, the late
Sixties and early Seventies, even as she juxtaposes the lives of a mother, a daughter, and a brother who in the end tries with all his heart to help his sister. As Suzette stumbles from one radioactive ex-boyfriend to another, drawn to them in an almost pathological way, over the years Raymond tries
again and again to rescue her from her transient life of terrible mistakes and missed opportunities.
The bonds of family eventually propel this exquisite novel, Jamie's assignation with Fawn symbolic of
her adolescent need to connect, to feel glamorous, and to feel better about herself and the world she lives in. She both loves and hates Fawn, at once enamored with her surly self-confidence yet blindsided by her sharp-edged vanity and unrelenting selfishness. Just like two sides of the same coin, Fawn ends up challenging Jamie's innocence and sense of integrity with devastating consequences in what is one of the most affecting and emotionally moving books I've read in recent years.