Marital abuse is the central issue in de los Santos' (The Precious One, 2015, etc.) latest, which is made up of two intersecting stories: a contemporary woman is engaged to a man with possibly scary anger issues and, in the 1950s, another woman faces difficult choices after the death of her beloved husband.
One day before Clare (who, along with other characters here, has appeared in previous de los Santos novels) is scheduled to marry good-looking lawyer Zach at a Virginia resort, an elderly stranger walks by while she's making centerpieces and says, “Courage, dear heart,” which happens to be a quote from one of Clare’s beloved Narnia books. The next morning, Clare finds herself talking in more depth to the stranger, Edith, who warns her not to live with someone who scares her. Already deeply apprehensive about marrying Zach because he has to work “so hard to be good,” Clare takes Edith’s advice and calls off the wedding. Edith dies shortly afterward and bequeaths her house on the Delaware coast to Clare. At loose ends after the non-wedding, Clare—who, unlike Zach, is naturally good as well as sensitive and loving—goes there to recover and to avoid Zach’s borderline stalking. The novel moves back and forth between Clare’s current romantic quandary and Edith’s difficult life in the '50s: her idyllic but tragically brief marriage, her years as a young widow running a vacation boardinghouse, her affair with a handsome stranger from the city who involves her in his “relocation system” for women escaping abusive husbands, the risk she takes to help a young mother who has killed her violent husband in self-defense. Readers learn most of these details long before Clare figures them out, although her natural curiosity about Edith draws her and her best friend/former boyfriend, Dev, into Nancy Drew–like sleuthing. Their playful, increasingly romantic enjoyment of the adventure in uncovering Edith’s past creates an odd contrast to the actual serious drama of Edith’s life.
De los Santos writes with disarming fluidity even when her plot takes far-fetched turns, but her heroine's inexhaustible perfection grows cloying.