Despite flaws, this second from Nissen (The Good People of New York, 2001), about alcohol-sodden year-rounders on a resort island in the Northeast, shows that she can deliver a compelling and layered tale.
Osprey Island in the summer of 1988 is home to an inbred ensemble of characters centered on a family-oriented hotel. Bud and Nancy, who run the Lodge, are at odds with their rebellious daughter Suzi, who’s vacationing there with her six-year-old daughter, Mia. Lorna and Lance, the Lodge’s housekeeper and head of maintenance, seem to be drinking themselves to death while neglecting their son Squee, age eight. Roddy, who grew up with Lance and Suzi but left the island for a while, is back, working at the Lodge. Gavin, a wealthy California kid, has followed his Stanford girlfriend back home to the island to work as a waiter in a Dirty Dancing reversal, only to be dumped for her high-school boyfriend. Brigid and Peg, two young Irishwomen with summer jobs at the Lodge, have come to the island in search of adventure. Nissen starts with some roiling family secrets (Did Roddy go to Vietnam or not? Who’s the father of Lorna’s child? Of Suzi’s? Why does Eden know so much?), adds booze and libido, and sets off impressive fireworks. Suzi is drawn to Roddy; Brigid has her eye on Lance but goes after Gavin. Lorna, drunk, falls asleep with a lit cigarette and dies in the laundry shack as it burns down around her. Unmoored, Lance indulges his violent streak. And, in a particularly well-drawn take on an island’s collective awareness, everyone wonders: What will happen to Squee?
Sometimes choppy narrative, ditto tiresome dialogue, and ponderous chapter headings (“As They Flee You’d Think They Float on Wings”) don’t quite obscure Nissen’s acute sense of the messy ambivalence of love, while her depiction of a child’s grief is heartbreaking. A perfectly satisfying if imperfect summertime read.