In British writer McKinlay’s fiction debut, a carefully modulated morality play, a middle-aged woman who knows she is dying struggles with a basic dilemma—“whether a good deed cancels a bad one, whether evil is undone by penance.”
Married for over 20 years, Frances and Phillip live in rural England, where Frances has devoted herself to raising Phillip’s now-25-year-old daughter Chloe, whose birth mother abandoned her, as her own. At 45, Frances is diagnosed with a fatal tumor, and Phillip drops his life in London to stay at home and care for her. But Frances has recently discovered a letter that links him romantically with a younger woman named Josee, the London-based editor of his books on marketing. Without confronting Phillip, Frances follows him into the city and witnesses what is obviously a farewell meeting. Over the next months, as she watches Phillip’s behavior, she reflects back on her own behavior as a footloose 22-year-old in Mexico and feels compelled to record in writing her involvement with a group of wealthy Americans whose selfish hedonism bring to mind The Great Gatsby: The three couples—Patsy and Richard, Bee Bee and Ned, Sally and Mason—seem interchangeable when they first meet Frances at a bar and invite her to come stay with them at the lavish estate where they are spending the summer. But soon Frankie, as they call her, begins a passionate affair with Mason. She considers Sally the villain and chooses to ignore that Mason and Patsy are also lovers, until it is too late. Guilt over her own culpability in the affair, and in its aftermath, pervades Frances’ last days, during which she recognizes Phillip’s loyalty and love along with his betrayal. As the novel glides fluently between Frances’ reactions as an obsessively thoughtful dying married woman and Frankie’s as a callow girl whose selfish desire for Mason trumped all other reactions, an uneasy sense of ethical murkiness grows.
A riveting novel in which the deceptively clear narrative voice offers no easy answers.