Brown’s debut novel drops us into the lives of three sisters whose daily struggles are defined by the sacred words of William Shakespeare, his writings influencing them in surprising and unexpected ways. Examining her characters with a practiced eye, the author focuses on what happens when two of the sisters, Bean and Cordy, return to the quaint college town of Barnwell after their mother is diagnosed with cancer.
Most fractured is glamorous Bean, coming back into the family fold with shattered expectations and aspirations. Running from a series of bad choices in New York, a city that had seduced her, Bean now stands adrift and anxious. Barnwell’s sleepy conventionality and its "narrow alley of possiblities" are a harsh reminder of her shortcomings as a woman and as a wage-earner.
As Bean searches in vain for success, she must find away to connect with her younger sister, Cordy. Considered Daddy’s favorite and the one most likely to get whatever she wants, Cordy is unable comprehend the thought of leading a responsible life. For years she has drifted around the country, accomplishing nothing in particular. With no aspirations and no particular skills,
her “unscratchable itch” to let loose and be free is stalled when she gets some news that only increases the leaden ache inside her heart.
While Bean and Cordy drag their baggage, literally and metaphorically, across the country, Rose, the eldest, remains safely
settled in the family home. The sister with the most conventional nature, Rose is caught between the needs of her parents and her desire to accompany her fiancé, Jonathan, to Oxford. Even when she balks at the notion, fearful of Jonathan’s offer, Rose tries to reason her status as her mother’s primary caregiver in order justify her tenacious refusal to leave.
Amid a thick, listlessly humid Barnwell summer, Brown lovingly traces her protagonists’ journey. At first the girls stay apart and cold, far from the tightly connected triumvirate that most sisters are presumed to be. Their distant father is an archetypical college professor. Smugly ensconced in his books, he hurriedly gives out advice, his professional genius guided by an occasional, high-spirited Shakespearian quip. Intent to ignore him, the sisters estrangement naturally becomes drama-laden.
The sisters try to straighten out the complex mess of their lives by helping their mother through her first rounds of chemotherapy. The ever-compliant Rose searches for love while gazing in horror at Bean and Cordy, who are both humiliated and embarrassed at the thought of leading such useless and rudderless lives. Bean’s "bedraggled perfection" belies her hope that life back in Barlow will grant her "some kind of pardon"; Rose treasures her romanticism even as she grudgingly decides not to fight Jonathan’s desire to go abroad; and Cordy, seemingly flaky, maintains a steady, almost detached aura no matter who surrounds her.
Lacing her scenes with passion and wry humor, Brown spins her story in a jumble of private regrets and mid-life angst where the demands to achieve success are balanced by the reality of uneasy compromises. Communicating through the words of a man dead for four hundred years, the Bard's timeless quotes are the perfect accent to these girls as they struggle to reshape their destinies in the face of life’s tough choices and challenges.