In Willett’s latest Cornwall cozy, a trio of aging siblings is threatened—but not enough—by their erstwhile stepbrother.
Ed and Billa St. Enedoc, who live in Mellinpons, a lovingly renovated former butter factory inherited from their parents, and their half brother, Dom, who lives nearby, are all retired and settling down to a comfortable routine of tea parties, nature studies and dog walking when the postcards start arriving. These missives, postmarked in France, hail from their stepbrother, Tris, whom they haven’t seen in 50 years, not since his father, Andrew, abruptly left Ed and Billa’s mother, Elinor, and disappeared, along with his son. The postcards are apparently intended to goad: Ed’s features an image reminiscent of a prized bicycle Tris appropriated, Billa’s a dog resembling her beloved Bitser, whose euthanasia was engineered by Tris; Dom’s is a reference to the fact that he is the illegitimate son of Ed and Billa’s father, Harry, born of a liaison which predated his marriage. What could Tris possibly want of the St. Enedocs now? The suspense of finding out what he's up to is the book’s main plot, which is not fleshed-out enough to stand on its own but must be padded with a subplot involving a 20-something university graduate, Tilly, the burgeoning IT business she runs with Navy wife Sarah and the growing affection of both young women for dishy curate Clem. Although Willett may doubt that the concerns of the older people are enough to carry the novel, in reality, Tilly’s and her cohorts’ predicaments seem banal and dull compared to the intriguing menace of Tris and the conflicted childhood memories he evokes. Willett’s determination to portray each character fairly and compassionately causes her to paint herself into a narrative corner: By allowing Tris a voice and evoking sympathy for him, she attenuates his power as the antagonist, thereby weakening the conflict and guaranteeing an anticlimactic denouement.
Once again (as in The Courtyard, 2007), a potentially intriguing fictional family history is smothered by excessive niceness.