In the unnamed narrator's darker days, when her obsession was most acute, she had no idea how to live at the crumbling mansion of Asherly or how to be a wife to her beloved State Senator, Max Winter, or be a friend to his teenage daughter, Dani. It's been less than a year since our narrator first met Max, whose love seized her by the shoulders and shook her out of her state of dormancy.
Our narrator has spent much of her life on the beaches of Grand Cayman, working for a charter boat company, until "the brass bells" signaled Max Winter's entrance into the overly air-conditioned hut managed by her Australian boss, Lauren. The four weeks that follow seem ripped from a paperback romance. From a half-day cruise to her eventual escape to Asherly, where she fails to heed Lauren's warning, everything moves quickly. The facts come into focus as the days pass and our narrator is thrust together with 15-year-old Dani, who poses in such a knowing way that she struggles to find something to comment on beside Dani's beauty. Max, meanwhile, is always serious-minded as he watches their chasm deepen. Hanging over them is the ghost of Max's first wife, Rebekah, who grows "like kudzu vining" around our narrator's heart: "here they were, watery images of the people who once loved me and I them."
Written from the first-person perspective, Gabriele's novel exposes the secrets and lies that center on Rebekah's accident and Dani, the first to be spilled into our narrator's riddles. Dani thinks the narrator is a gold digger, an "evil step monster" who is marrying her father for his money. Ensconced in winterly Asherly, with its enormous fireplace and high ceilings, our narrator listens to Katya the housekeeper's words: "she's just a temporary guest enjoying a stay, too meek to make it all work." And what of the photos of Rebekah and Dani plastered throughout Asherly, especially in the room on the third floor? It comes across as a shrine expressly created for Rebekah.
Our narrator's vantage point is solidly built on assumption and crippling self-doubt. All is allegory and metaphor as she attempts to use Max as a shield for her entry into Asherly life. Meanwhile, Louisa, Max's benevolent sister, and Louisa's first husband, Jonah, try to prevent her from becoming stuck in that vague in-between place: "I wasn't in the Caymans anymore but I was not fully here either." Rambling around the coastal grounds of Asherly, she enters a dynamic already in play, a tone cast from the hands of beautiful Rebekah and difficult Dani. At first, the narrator allows herself the fantasy, however brief, that Max has found her attractive, but suddenly she's dimmed by Rebekah: "Why are you with someone like me when you were once married to someone like her?"
Dani and Rebekah's secrets eventually precipitate the exposure of Max's dark secrets. As Max looms over her in his beloved but derelict and darkened greenhouse, he suddenly becomes the mere outline of the man she thought she knew. Asherly itself seems to be pushing her out. She fully expects Rebekah to be standing in the hallway, "summoned by the confession, a gray specter in a bloody dress." The dream that begins and ends the book sets the mood and tells the truth about the enigma of Rebekah and Max's involvement in her death.
Though the plot is melodramatic, the book is never sentimental. Sometimes I felt stuck and nervous. My pulse quickened every time Max (and Dani) entered a room. Author Gabriele presents a perfectly layered representation of her heroine: the way she dresses, her hiding, acquiescing and nail-biting, the way she reacts to her wealthy husband. From Asherly's cold dread to the ghost of Rebekah, The Winters is the perfect homage to the De Maurier's great twentieth-century classic.