In this debut novel, a San Francisco architect returns to her childhood home in Maine to try to make sense of her past.
Following her parents’ deaths in an auto accident, Gina Gilbert starts to unravel. It’s not just grief: Gina had unfinished business with her mother, a volatile woman who tormented the whole family. After the funeral, Gina goes home to California, to her devoted husband and two young children and her work as an architect. But the Maine house, in the coastal village of Whit’s Point, exerts a powerful pull, and she returns by herself, seeking clues to her mother’s, and her own, unhappiness. In alternating chapters, Armsden—a poised writer better at description than dialogue—depicts Gina’s present-day search and her painful growing-up years. Gina’s mother was a Banton, descended from a (fictitious) man who served as private secretary to George Washington and built the elegant Lily House in Whit’s Point. Though Lily House remained in the family, Gina, her parents, and sister lived a mile away, in a rental filled with antiques but “shabby-around-the-edges”—one source of her mother’s discontent. The Gilberts’ house looms large in this complicated narrative and almost takes on a life of its own. Indeed, it's not until Gina makes the house give up a crucial, long-buried secret that her spirits start to lift. In her architectural drawings, Gina enjoys imposing order on chaos. The author, an architect herself, gives in to a similar urge, tying things together a bit too neatly by book’s end. What had seemed mysterious and unknowable begins to feel schematic.
Vividly written, with a strong sense of place, this is an affecting if somewhat overwrought—and overlong—first novel.