A mother loses her infant child, and her grief haunts her attempts to start afresh in this novel.
Claire leaves Vermont and moves to Los Angeles, reinventing herself as a landscape gardener. She becomes romantically involved with a high school history teacher, Jake, but hides her past, neglecting to tell him about her baby Sarah’s mysterious death more than five years ago, or about her marriage that fell apart thereafter. Jake finally tells her about his own living 8-year-old daughter, Mandy, two years older than Sarah would have been, if the latter were still alive. Claire and Jake become closer as a couple, but Mandy’s ungovernably rambunctious behavior, and her father’s bottomless indulgence of it, becomes a sore spot between them. After Claire and Jake get engaged, Claire becomes pregnant, and she spontaneously reveals to Mandy that she once had a child who passed away. Mandy’s response is chilling: “Sarah was a spoiled baby….You hugged her too much….No wonder she died.” However, Mandy keeps the secret to herself, which Claire interprets as a tactical maneuver—a calculated ploy to maintain power over her. Claire also becomes plagued by emotionally wrenching memories of her late daughter, some which reduce her to sobs, and she seems increasingly unable to distinguish between imaginative reveries and lived reality. Then Claire’s vision of her child demands to meet Mandy, and Claire begins to feel that her pregnancy is somehow a betrayal of her lost daughter—a defiling of a womb that rightfully belongs to Sarah.
Debut author McKelvey has a gift for conjuring and maintaining a sepulchral atmosphere of expectancy. As the plot progresses, the reader will become gradually and tantalizingly aware that he or she is being led to a dramatic crescendo. The author depicts Claire’s disconnectedness from reality with immersive effectiveness—it becomes hard, even for readers, to distinguish between her melancholic dreams and her dangerous hallucinations. A principal element of suspense fiction is the pace of disclosure, and the author manages this perfectly, effectively doling out enough information to keep the plot intelligible but not so much that it dispels the mounting sense of mystery. For example, Claire’s brother, Roger, is a pediatrician, and he’s still bewildered by his patient Sarah’s death, thinking that “There must have been something I missed.” Then Claire tells readers that she knows precisely why Sarah died—but reservedly leaves it an enigma. At times, Mandy’s character seems painted in overly rough strokes, as she’s not merely a spoiled brat but also cunning and darkly clever: a preteen monster. Also, there’s something vaguely but creepily sexual about the bond between Mandy and Jake, a distasteful aspect that’s emphasized when Mandy joins the newlyweds on their honeymoon. But such hyperbole also helps to amplify the fact that Claire and Jake share a grasping possessiveness about their respective daughters. Indeed, Claire’s territoriality is all the more unsettling because it extends to the dead—and even to her memories of the dead.
A morbidly eerie and artfully crafted psychological thriller.