A retired doctor and a neurotic young English teacher meet on a sleepy Chesapeake island to exchange vaguely Gothic life stories of guilt and recrimination--which amounts to massive self-indulgence and out-of-control Southern lyricism from the author of A Sea Change and Lilith. Dr. Carl Ransome is a lonely widower who has retired to Solomons Island in Chesapeake Bay, apparently to muse and putter about. One day, out puttering, he meets Sylvie, a fey, somewhat mysterious young woman with a tragic air about her who has moved in down the road. They hit it off instantly and, for the next 600 pages or so, tell each other their life stories. Ransome's memories focus on the 1940's, when he worked for the United States Public Health Service in the small town of Tallacoochee, Alabama. He had an unhappy marriage, an ungrateful child, and now feels guilty because he was unable to save the life of a black man dying of syphilis. He also refused to help resuscitate a drowning victim, a nasty little girl who'd earlier threatened to tell the townspeople he was a pervert because he neglected to close the window when he used the bathroom. Young Sylvie's tragedies are more recent, but no less silly. A university professor, she'd come to Solomons to run away from the fact that her longtime lover Ron died in a car accident after discovering Sylvie was unfaithful to him (she'd deliberately left her autobiographical novel out for him to read). As if this isn't guilt enough, she has a yearning to sleep with her brother, Aaron. As the novel ends, she does. The earth moves: ""I lay back on the earth and he came to me like a comet falling to the sun; we were drawn together by an awful conjugal gravity that seemed to bend the air above us, crumpling the fields of space in which we lay, convulsing time itself; for one bright, cataclysmic moment distorting the whole fabric of the universe, twisting the clear shield of infinity awry."" Perhaps at a loss for an encore, she then stares into the sun long enough to blind herself permanently, and Ransome becomes her nurse--together they will take long walks, eat chowder, and be kind to each other. In sum: a Great Chinese Wall of nearly impenetrable purple prose.