The Cuban missile crisis provides the backdrop for a domestic drama in which a Florida housewife unravels while her teenage daughter discovers long-guarded secrets.
In October 1962, Wes Avery is the well-liked owner of a Texaco station in Orlando, proud of his elegant wife, Sarah, and their daughter, Charlotte, just elected to the homecoming court. As the novel opens, Wes notices a series of oddities: increased activity at the nearby Air Force base, fighter jets overhead, long railway convoys headed to the coast. Then President John F. Kennedy makes a speech confirming Wes' growing sense of dread—the Soviets want to use Cuba as a missile base. While Sarah works with the Women's Club's Civil Defense Committee stocking bomb shelters with essentials, Wes, who served in World War II and saw firsthand the destruction at Hiroshima, is sure nothing can survive the game of chicken Kennedy and Khrushchev are playing. Equally nervous is Emilio, a teenage “Pedro Pan” (one of the Cuban children sent to the U.S. by their parents after the revolution), who works part time at the Texaco station. Handsome and with the courtly manners of the displaced Cuban ruling class, Emilio is taking Charlotte to homecoming, a prospect that outrages her race-conscious mother. But that's not the only thing disturbing Sarah, giving her headaches so severe she lies in the dark all day. After a miscarriage led to an unnecessary hysterectomy, Dr. Mike has been prescribing her a potent cocktail of uppers and downers, with the expected results. When Kitty, Sarah's believed-to-be-dead sister, arrives in town, Wes does all he can to keep her away from Sarah and Charlotte. Though Sarah's breakdown is riveting, McCarthy doesn't manage to convey the fear the characters experience living on the edge of a nuclear holocaust.
Though the family drama reads well, there isn't enough tension surrounding what turned out to be a historically anticlimactic event.