Loneliness is the dominant emotion in this sad, sensitive first novel by the author of a previous story collection (Director of the World, 1992). It's not that McCafferty's characters are isolated, alienated individuals; they live in an intricate web of family relations revolving around the tension-riddled bond of Ivy and Gladys, who, when the story opens in 1978, are middle-aged sisters working as cooks in an upstate New York camp/school for troubled rich kids. The author deftly moves her narrative backward to their childhood and forward to the present in chapters related (in nicely distinct voices) by each of the sisters; Gladys's ex-husband, James; and her much younger friend, Raelene. It seems that James's arrival shattered the sisters" youthful intimacy, which appeared to have withstood their father's blatant favoring of Gladys, and that the accidental drowning of Ann, James and Gladys's preschool daughter, broke her mother's spirit in a way that would never be put right. Gladys, always disinclined to communicate, becomes even more resistant to Ivy's attempt to get close, displaying something like contempt for her sister's efforts to put a good face on a world Gladys sees as cruel and meaningless. Yet Gladys can—t entirely resist the neediness of Raelene, daughter of a clinically depressed mother and drug-addicted father who arrives at Camp Timber as a teenaged counselor after years of correspondence initiated when Raelene began wearing a bracelet with the name of James's POW son (later revealed to be dead). This is a story about loss and the pain of love that never seems to reach the right person at the right time, but a strain of dark humor and appreciation for natural beauty keeps it from unrelieved grimness. McCafferty makes us care for her troubled characters, each a fully rounded, complex individual. Her themes are evident, yet always grounded particulars. Strong work from a writer to watch.
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