A luminous novel about a daughter who attempts to make peace with her mother, who's been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease; McGhee revisits characters from Shadow Baby (2000).
Clara Winter, a preteen in the earlier book, is now in her early 30s, making a meager living writing eulogies or wedding tributes for $100 a pop. When she learns that her mother has been diagnosed with dementia, she moves from Florida back to the Adirondacks, where she grew up. Her mother, meanwhile, has sold her house and all its possessions—with the exception of Clara’s childhood books—and moved into a nursing home. Clara wants to say goodbye to her mom, the “fearsome” Tamar, but she is also desperate to solve a mystery from her youth: why did her high school boyfriend break up with her after a conversation with her mother? Despite Clara’s age, the book sometimes has the ring of a young-adult novel: Clara’s budding romance with a sweet, hunky bartender seems uncomplicated by whatever life she has been living for the past decade, her only friendships are with college friends, and her obsession with high school secrets would make more sense for a younger character. McGhee nimbly structures the novel as a version of Tamar’s favorite television show, Jeopardy, and if the answers to Clara’s questions aren’t as compelling as the hunt to find them, the author’s gift for subtly poetic language and her believable dialogue make Clara’s journey worth following. McGhee has an almost musical ability to repeat the themes of her novel with enough variation to keep them fresh.
Fierce, complicated characters appear to grow out of the severe Adirondack landscape, and McGhee swerves away from sentimentality in addressing the relentlessly changing relationship at the novel’s core.