A widow returns to her family cottage in Maine, her late husband’s ashes and ornery cat in tow, and ponders her first experience of love and loss.
Siddons frames the story around the sudden death of Cam McCall, Virginia architect, while at his wife Lilly’s Maine seashore cottage, Edgewater. Though portrayed as eminently trustworthy, Cam has, unbeknownst to Lilly, visited the unheated cottage many times during the “Off Season” while supposedly traveling elsewhere on business. After wrangling about the disposition of Cam’s cremains with her spoiled yuppie daughters, Lilly heads north with Silas, Cam’s cranky, subliminally conversational cat, and the urn. In her cottage, Lilly revisits the pivotal summer of 1962, when, a wiry 11-year-old tomboy, she led a gang of other kids on a spate of mostly wholesome outdoor activities, occasionally ruffling feathers in this WASP-ruled vacation enclave. Lilly’s preadolescence is thorny. She’s overshadowed by her charismatic painter mother, who yearns to enter Jackie Kennedy’s social circle, and her father, a professor at George Washington University, is too supportive to rebel against. On a lonely ramble to a nearby cliff, Lilly encounters a boy named Jon and is immediately smitten. The two are inseparable until a prissy, meddlesome neighbor child, Peaches, exposes the fact that Jon’s father is Jewish, a secret his father had kept from him and his mother. Shocked by the deception, Jon sails into a fog in Lilly’s sailboat, and drowns. Lilly retreats into a cocoon of denial and becomes obsessed with underwater swimming. Her isolation is exacerbated when her mother dies of breast cancer and her father keeps her cloistered in benevolent but stifling domesticity as the turbulent ’60s unfold. In contrast to Siddons’s usual heroine, who struggles to achieve self-sufficiency, Lilly is overcome by passivity, which deepens as she’s repeatedly blindsided by loss.
The inadequately foreshadowed surprise ending involves an ultimate betrayal that will dismay readers almost as much as it does Lilly.