A young woman travels from Mississippi to Massachusetts to look up her former best friend.
In her second novel (Body of a Girl, 2000), Stewart introduces Cameron, the 31-year-old reclusive paid companion/secretary to aging historian Oliver Doucet in Oxford, Miss. Stewart’s spare, elegant prose conveys the rhythm of their life together, capturing the bittersweet complexity of their mutual platonic devotion, both selfless and selfish. After receiving a letter from her ex-friend Sonia announcing her engagement, Cameron ignores Oliver’s advice to respond to Sonia’s overture of reconciliation. When Oliver, who believes that “all times exist simultaneously,” dies a few months later, he leaves a posthumous request that Cameron take a mysterious wrapped wedding gift to Sonia, with whom he has evidently carried on his own correspondence and wants Cameron to see again. Since early adolescence, Cameron and Sonia had been soul mates, their friendship as intense as a love affair and as bitter and complex in its dissolution. Sonia was the local girl who befriended Cameron when she moved to New Mexico at 14. In return, Cameron supported Sonia in her struggle to maintain her self-esteem despite a hypercritical-to-the-point-of-crazy mother. Steward beautifully delineates this complex relationship, but then the plot begins to strain. Cameron never revealed her secret crush on Sonia’s boyfriend Will, so all these years later she has not forgiven Sonia for sleeping with Cameron’s college boyfriend the night Sonia’s father died, even though Sonia was acting out of grief and was immediately sorry. Cameron’s moral outrage feels contrived, as does her passionate reunion with Will. By the time Cameron reads Oliver’s letter explaining his own secrets and regrets, Cameron has become a less-than-sympathetic heroine.
A terrific opening slides into heavy-handed philosophizing and sentimental romance.