Canadian Gunn’s American debut is the story of an anthropologist searching for the mother who abandoned her—in a mix of overwrought plot, deep thoughts, and anthropology.
Kate is in her early 30s, and her life is a mess: she’s been married, divorced, had numerous affairs, an abortion. She drinks too much, pops pills, and has been suspended from her teaching job because of inappropriate behavior. And naturally it’s not her fault—mother, father, stepmother are all responsible. When she learns that her stepmother Elaine has drowned, Kate finally goes back home to Twisp, Washington, which she’d left at 15, going to Canada to live with her aunt Rose when her father, Joe, married Elaine. She’d recently divorced Ray, an artist, whose teenaged daughter Patti also lives in Twisp with her own baby and husband Trevor. Once home, Kate learns that Elaine, who’d urgently wanted to talk to her before she died, turns out to have been the elder sister of her mother, Iris. Between fights with her father and bouts of heavy drinking, Kate looks through Iris’s possessions, examines old photos for clues, and places ads asking for information about Kate’s mother, who’d also had a son she put up for adoption. While Kate is busy investigating, Patti suddenly disappears, leaving her baby behind—and searchers find her body in a ravine. Patti’s disappearance and murder clumsily hint at possible parallels to Iris’s disappearance, as do the anecdotes about tribes—the Anasazi, Ik, and Tasaday—that, by becoming extinct, literally disappeared. Kate meets a woman who knew Iris when she ran off to India with her drug-addicted lover Danny. She also learns that Iris was hospitalized on her return when her behavior became erratic at home. Memories from the past return, especially the snowy day when Iris put four-year-old Kate outside in the snow while she met up again with Danny. It was the last time Kate saw her.
A barely credible denouement mercifully brings to a close this ambitious but tedious tale.