The cottage on the New Hampshire coast that housed the protagonists of The Pilot’s Wife (1998) and Sea Glass (2002) makes a poignant setting for Shreve’s tale of a young widow thrown into a fraught family drama.
At 29, Sydney Sklar has already been married twice. She’s well aware of the irony that she divorced a pilot because of his dangerous profession, only to have her second husband, a brand-new doctor, drop dead of a brain aneurysm after eight months of marriage. Bad twists of fate lurk in Shreve’s dark narrative, full of glancing references to car accidents and old tragedies the cottage has seen. Sydney is there for the summer to tutor Julie, the sweet but “slow” late-life child of Mr. and Mrs. Edwards (rarely referred to by their first names). Sydney is fond of the girl and her father; she and Mrs. Edwards share a mutual dislike. The tension ratchets up with the arrival of Julie’s much older brothers: 35-year-old Ben, a corporate-real-estate agent, and 31-year-old MIT professor Jeff. Sydney doesn’t care for Ben, whom she thinks groped her when the brothers took her body surfing at night, and she’s disturbingly attracted to Jeff, who has a gorgeous girlfriend. The two make an emotional connection looking for Julie one night when she’s late coming home; they make love for the first time (Jeff’s dumped the girlfriend) on the evening Julie runs off to Montreal to live with a lesbian lover no one knew she had. Ben reacts to Sydney and Jeff’s engagement with outrage that seems excessive until the novel’s shocking dénouement, which leaves Sydney to remake her life for the third time. Seen exclusively through her eyes, the other characters are vivid but ultimately opaque, so the novel seems somewhat solipsistic. As a portrait of a woman belatedly coming of age after being buffeted by fate, however, it’s well drawn and will satisfy Shreve’s fans.
Not one of this crowd-pleasing author’s best, but a solid, workmanlike B-plus effort.