A woman strives to triangulate her history and identity in a melancholy lake town in this gauzy debut.
Alice, the hero of this novel largely set in the ’70s and ’80s, has spent most of her life not knowing where she came from. Adopted as an infant, she grew up in Kettleborough, a small New Hampshire town where secrets are pervasive but well-kept. What happened, as the reader knows, is that her father died in a car accident—a common occurrence in these pages—and that her mother has ran off. These details aren’t invested with much drama, nor is Alice’s adult life: Her adolescence was marked by an ill-advised relationship with a friend of her father’s, and the closing third of the book tracks her lovelorn correspondence with a man she’s never met. Maxwell labors less on plot than on mood, a blend of modern gothic where men and women are drawn to Kettleborough’s lake, often tragically, and a prose style heavy on sober pronouncements and unrealistic dialogue. (“I’m thirteen and already life has become too much,” one character utters.) Those flaws might qualify as assets in surer hands, but Maxwell’s efforts to give this story an otherworldly quality are undone by its ungainly structure. The novel is arranged much like a collection of linked stories, each bit loosely tethered to the next, and Alice only truly owns the latter half of the book. Earlier chapters are claimed by Alice’s grandmother and other relations, and though they share some of Alice’s qualities—bad love, the gloomy pull of the lake—none are filled out enough to merit pushing its lead character to the side.
Maxwell’s passion for storytelling about place and family is obvious, but her command of characters and tone is no match for it.