In a house on Orcas Island, the stories of two young women unfold: a 19th-century Chinese-American and a recent college graduate trying to piece together a mystery left behind.
Inara Erickson, just out of business school, has a corporate job at Starbucks waiting for her. She just needs to settle her aunt's estate before she steps into adulthood. Aunt Dahlia has left her Rothesay, the family compound on Orcas Island in the Puget Sound. But when Inara gets there, she begins to take Dahlia's old dream of turning the place into a hotel seriously. While poking around, she finds a piece of elaborately embroidered cloth hidden in a stair tread. She returns to Seattle with two objectives: to find out more about the embroidered sleeve and to convince her father to finance her conversion of Rothesay into a boutique hotel. Alternating with Inara's story, Mei Lien's tragic tale comes to light. Born in Seattle, she lives with her father and grandmother above their dry goods shop until public sentiment turns violent. On the tail of the Chinese Exclusion Act, her whole neighborhood is forced onto a boat for China. But the ship's racist owner, Inara's great-great-great grandfather Duncan Campbell, has other plans—to dump his human cargo into the sea. Mei Lien is rescued by Joseph McElroy and brought to his homestead on Orcas. They fall in love, marry, and have a son but are ostracized—and worse yet, Duncan Campbell is their neighbor. Meanwhile, Inara is beginning her own romance with Daniel Chin, an academic who's helping her research the origin of her embroidered cloth. When Inara discovers that her ancestor, soon to be commemorated in a city park, is a mass murderer, she has to decide whether to reveal her secret.
Though there are a few unnecessary coincidences, Estes' debut is a pleasing blend of historical fiction and contemporary drama.