Can love survive lies? In a tale that keeps us constantly off balance, 20-something Harry Ackerson returns from New York to Kennewick Village, Maine. Alice, Harry's father's second wife, has called him to tell him that his father, Bill, is dead after slipping and falling out on the cliff path where he liked to walk. John, the only employee at Bill's bookstore, tells Harry his father left before five to go for a walk. A lover of crime novels, Bill was the only person left in Harry's life whom he truly loved. Now with only exotic, sensual Alice for company, Harry thinks about the summer and all the time Bill spent so much time with Alice. Bill had already fallen hard for Alice and was testing the waters with his son.
Back in Kennewick Village, Harry feels a revulsion that he's sexually attracted to a woman whom his father married. As words fill his brain, Harry narrates his own life as tries to understand the implications of Bill's passing. According to Detective Dixon, Bill's death is being treated as suspicious. Although it's inconclusive, there's a real possibility that he was hit on the head before he fell off the path.
Straddling Harry and Alice's voices, Swanson's subversive tale churns with people who thrive on culpability and manipulation. Alice describes how she entered another life when she and Edith, her mother, first arrived in this small Maine town. The first sunny, heady months are remembered for Alice's fortuitous meeting with handsome Jake Richter. Beyond the beach meeting that was at least partly arranged by Edith, the arrival of Jake precipitates a sudden surge of freedom, a sense of possibility and a feeling that Alice is part of something bold and wonderful. Edith's drinking is getting worse. More often than not, she's passed out by the time Jake gets home from work and Alice gets home from school.
Back in the present, Harry tries to recreate Bill's last moments, refusing to countenance Alice's missives that Bill was depressed before he died. Becoming an amateur sleuth, Harry hopes to find out why a girl called Grace was at his father's funeral. Were Grace and Bill having an affair? Why has she come to Maine from New York? Staring at the illegible lines of print in one of his father's beloved books, Harry thinks about how little he knew Bill and about mysterious Alice, whose quiet stillness both unnerves and excites him.
Alice and Jake each hold back a series of dangerous, even lethal secrets and lies. Two people close to Alice have died. Was it an accident or part of a plan? Jake and Alice have been ensnared in each other's lives. Circumstances have brought them together, and a slow-burn desire has kept them allied, long before Harry's serendipitous return. Jake--perhaps the most disturbing character--is a scheming bachelor who will court and marry any age-appropriate woman who just happens to have a teenage daughter. Is Alice a con artist bent on destruction, or is she a Machiavellian murderer with some sort of grand plan?
Like a chameleon, some people change names, addresses, jobs, and even personalities when it suits them. We like to think we're shrewd enough not to be conned. Harry finally realizes how little he actually knows Alice. The death of both of his parents have erased a whole portion of his own life. When Caitlin, Grace's sister, arrives in Kennewick and is attracted to Harry, a complex web of deceit begins to unfold between Alice and Jake, Caitlin and Harry. Who is playing who? Harry senses another agenda at work. Alice has barely enough time to regroup as her past comes roaring back. Jake ends up a hollowed-out husk, a desperate presence that lingers in the air like a recently smoked cigarette.
In thrillers such as this, the climax can sometimes feel overwrought as damaged characters attempt to fumble their way back to normalcy. Not so with this one. Swanson attempts to reveal Jake and Alice's series of intricate falsehoods while Harry is essentially left floating adrift, shattered after Bill's murder, plunging him into dark world of murder and abuse.