A beautiful woman continues beyond death to fascinate her survivors, in this 16th novel from the Booker-winning British author (Spiderweb, 1999, etc.) also well known for her children’s fantasy fiction.
The neatly turned plot is initiated by 60ish landscape historian Glyn Peters’s discovery (in an envelope marked “don’t open—destroy”) of a photograph showing his late wife Kath in a pose of obvious intimacy with her brother-in-law. Glyn, accustomed to “excavating” the truth about people from structures they leave behind, shares this unwelcome information, producing seismic tremors in several interlocking relationships. Kath’s older sister Elaine, a sophisticated “garden designer,” abruptly dismisses the errant Nick, a vagrant freelance journalist and lifelong underachiever, from their home, and their marriage. Their single daughter Polly, a distracted Web designer, tries and fails to make her parents reconcile. Glyn, meanwhile, questions old friends who might also have been Kath’s lovers, including arts festival exec Peter Claverdon (who’s gay) and publisher Oliver Watson (who took the offending photograph, but is otherwise innocent). Eventually, reclusive potter Mary Packard, who appears to have known the willful, probably unstable Kath better than any of them, arrives as a dea ex machina to reveal the motives behind Kath’s partially secret life. Lively handles this oddly unremarkable story skillfully, building a teasing fragmentary portrait of Kath from others’ memories of her—while clearly developing her manifest theme: the unknowability and mystery of other people’s lives. Only in the characterization of Elaine, a confident and capable woman sentient enough to understand and accept her own limitations, do the wit, constructive skill, and verbal facility lavished on what’s really a very slight story bear significant fruit.
Always a pleasure to watch a pro at work, but Lively has done better than this.