North really makes no attempt to mask the transparency of his story, the protagonists exposing their secret wounds from the start. The purpose of the novel is clear: this is essentially a love story. This is a paean to the human journey from loneliness to love and an appreciation of nature’s bounty and harmony.
Barely a year after a painful divorce in Philadelphia, professor of architectural theory Andrew Stratton makes an impulsive decision to register for a one-week course on wall building on the wild Cornish coast of England in the village of Boscastle. Following a theme that has interested him for some time, Andrew is fascinated by “the harmony of livable places.” This small village perfectly illustrates Andrew’s belief in function and simplicity: “You can find a stone to fit the space, or you can find a space to fit the stone.”
One of the first people Andrew stumbles across is a sprightly nine-year-old girl, Lee, who becomes his village guide. The second is Nicola Rhys-Jones, an ex-pat American painter living in her Boscastle artist’s studio. Stratton’s first meeting with Nicola is electric, the attraction between them defined by a sarcastic repartee, both very protective of their bruised egos. A divorcee, Nicola is vulnerable and cautious, mending a broken life and haunted by the past.
The love story is the crux of this novel, but North has a tendency to deviate from the plot with arbitrary discussions of religion, witchcraft, painting and the art of wall-building. The sense of place is powerful and seductive, the drama played out on the wild coastline that harkens to earlier times, a bit Heathcliffian in tenor.
North mixes his troubled protagonists with a cast of eccentric villagers, local history, and an impending natural disaster the villagers will face by the end of the novel. His wall-building class a metaphor for personal growth, Stratton comes to learn an ancient technique and finds himself: “Every stone he lifted… was taking one down from the wall around him.”
The author appeals to a broad audience, one that finds comfort in the healing of love gone wrong. Essentially a man searching for simplicity in the chaos of his emotional distress, Stratton is an Everyman, hardworking and loyal. He senses the good in Nicola, the crackling tension between them critical to the plot. Not as necessary, or charming, is the preachiness that underlies the resolution of conflict, North’s need to impose his own beliefs on the reader.