A woman discovers her mother possesses a secret cottage, unleashing a chain of revelations and realizations in this novel.
Eleanor Williams, called Nell, is confused as well as worried when she gets a call from a Hartland, Vermont, hospital saying that her mother, Mary Ellen Reilly, is in intensive care. Vermont? Her mother lives in Massachusetts. Tense with anxiety, Nell rushes to her still-unconscious mother from her New Jersey home to discover a fresh enigma: Mary owns a cottage in Hartland, filled with photos of her covert life going back 20 years, before Nell’s father died. Already subject to insecurity, Nell feels betrayed, her world crumbling: “Wasn’t Mom’s real life good enough? Why did she need to get away from it?” But as she and her older sister Bridget learn more about the cottage and Mary’s friendship with neighbor Jake Bascomb and his son Adam, Nell realizes that in her own home, she has no personal space. To write in her journal, she has to hide in the bathroom, while her husband has both a home office and a man cave. Nell begins to understand why her mother never mentioned the cottage. And as the novel reveals more about its characters, including the Bascombs, buried family secrets come to light and new understandings are reached. In her book, Cleare (Destined, 2011) constructs a well-written examination of how families affect choices, why people keep secrets, and the need for a room of one’s own. The tale retains a sense of mystery as its revelations spill out; one of the greatest riddles, it turns out, is a parent’s real life, the one not shown to children. Nell’s panic at discovering this helps explain the need for secrecy; it’s never an arbitrary plot obstacle. But some things work out a little too neatly or easily and some depend on wealth; in addition, Nell is agonizingly slow at figuring out she should just speak up for what she wants instead of finding a way to manipulate others or not have to ask. Yet many can relate to her dilemma, if not her privilege.
A family tale offers skillful dialogue as well as brisk pacing and an effective resolution.