In July 1993, Sylvie and her teenage daughter, Emma, are called to La Reverie, Sylvie's childhood home in the south of France. The house, standing empty for 10 years now, has been damaged by a small fire. As Sylvie descends deeper and deeper into the darkening mass of France, she doesn't recognize the country she left behind, the sleepy France of her childhood or the place where hers was once a "normal family." After London, the countryside around them feels endless, a landscape of "softened farmhouses...the occasional shuttered restaurant marooned at the margins of vast fields."
There is a complicated dynamic between a mother and her two daughters, Emma and Elodie, the ghost who always seems present in La Reverie. On leaving for London when Emma was just four, Sylvia bundled everything into a "deep drawer marked France" and slammed it shut. Now, as Sylvie and Emma make their approach, La Reverie seems to stand in its own dim pool of light. Sylvie adjusts to the countryside after years of London's perpetually thrumming glow. By unspoken agreement, Sylvie and Emma only talk about "her" obliquely: "I've caught you enough times, though, gazing at that photograph in the hall at home. She died, you and Dad split up, and we moved to London. That's it."
Emma's memories of Elodie jumpstart the memories of Sylvie's life with her older daughter, the hot summer days and nights when Sylvie was caught between her love for Elodie and her fear that her daughter was somehow "damaged." Riordan catalyzes the memories of Sylvie's days back in 1968, when Elodie was conceived in Paris and of her husband Greg's denial of Elodie's difficulties. Unsympathetic to Sylvie's anxious pleas, Greg denies that he treats Elodie as an extension of his politics. Greg wants for Elodie the kind of bohemian upbringing his artist friends in Hampstead are giving their own children.
In heat of the garden in 1972, there's no breeze and the oleander leaves are unmoving in the canicule heatwave. It strikes Sylvie, "like the dull ting of a fork on cracked glass" that she doesn't know were Elodie is, until she spies her at the edge of the parched lawn and at the top of the steps leading up to the terrace, crouching in the dark, in dry earth of a flowerbed. In 1993, Emma wonders whether Elodie's ghost might be at La Reverie. As Emma's thoughts swirl in the gloom, bright and unearthly "like phosphorescence," Elodie's ghost lures Sylvie back to the past. For Sylvie, motherhood with Elodie remains as mysterious and elusive a state as it was before she entered it.
Did Elodie die, or did she just disappear? She wasn't easy, always a bubble of hysteria with serious behavioral issues. Mother and daughter were more alike than Sylvie cared to admit. Sylvie's search for answers opens a Pandora's box of the secrets of Elodie's past and Emma's obsession with her older sister. The strong bonds of love can hold siblings together and, at the same time, destroy everything precious. Other characters skirt around the edges: ex-husband Greg, loyal Aunt Camille, and a beau from the past--Olivier Lagarde, much handsomer than Sylvie expected from her dim memory.
As her chapters move between the late '70s to 1993, Riordan unfolds Sylvie's clumsy attempts to shield Emma from Elodie's worse inclinations. Sylvie wants to sell La Reverie and leave as soon as possible, but she also wants to stay. The house reminds her of how she has always felt about Elodie, a "love and fear so tightly entwined as to be indivisible." While the rational part of Sylvie always knew Elodie wasn't dead, after a while she "didn't seem quite alive." The doctor's original words--"psychopathic"--is like a siren that echoes through the years and across the fields of Sylvie's dreams. Elodie, such a dynamic, unpredictable personality, has never been entirely dead to Sylvie. Elodie has lived on in dreams and photographs and the cherry-picked stories her father told Emma: "She's halfway to being your religion."
It is left to Emma to sort out her older sister's final, fatal choices. Was Elodie's love for her father corrupted by contempt? She was able to fool Greg with her particular charisma, her skill at manipulation, but did this turn her from a petty thief into a murderer? Sylvie and Elodie have become not just mother and daughter, adult and child, but also equals forever pitted against each other. Elodie's goading defiance makes her hard and bright: "like a diamond cutting through all that hippie lassitude she affects when it pleases her."
Riordan fully understands this complicated mother-daughter relationship and tries to do it justice as she threads together the complicated pieces of Sylvie, Emma and Elodie's puzzle. She has an aptitude for delineating Sylvie's inner life, for showing us the push and pull she feels between her daughters and Greg (and Elodie's destructive impulses) and Emma's teenage needs. The heatwave is suffocating, the south of France on fire an apt metaphor for Sylvie and Elodie's reconnection, and a powerful symbol for Sylvie's introspective looking-glass life.