This book came really highly recommended. It was a NY Times bestseller, an Oprah’s bookclub choice and a few people on my twitter feed had said it lived up to the hype. I read a few chapters one day and was a little disappointed – the suspense seemed heavy handed and the story was stunted by the fact that you’re never quite sure what time you are in.
Nevertheless, the next day I picked it up again and was delighted to discover that after a few awkward chapters at the beginning, the book blossoms into a sweet, melancholic story where the twist is rather inconsequential compared to your affection for the characters.
The story is about Amanda, who returns to the family home to convalesce after a series of unfortunate events at her nursing job. Mathilda, the adored younger sister, happily receives Amanda and the two raise Mathilda’s daughter Ruth on their island home while waiting for Mattie’s war-wounded husband Carl to return home. Then Mattie drowns under mysterious circumstances and Carl and Amanda are left to raise Ruth while dealing with the tragedy. The story flashes through to when Ruth is 11 and is ‘adopted’ by Imogene, a gregarious younger girl, and they soon become fast friends. Later, as teenagers, Ruth and Imogene are subjected to the affections of a vacationing Arthur Owen and Aunt Amanda seems determined that neither girl return his attentions.
The story builds and builds. It gets to where it doesn’t matter what happened to Mattie because it was so long ago, and yet the echoes of her life and death still touch the characters in unexpected ways. You begin to choose sides and then lament when you favourite characters inevitably make desperate decisions leading to tragic mistakes. I actually enjoyed the soft menace that seeps around the edges of the tale, making the idyllic landscape that makes up the setting of the story a little more bleak and dangerous than originally thought.
It’s not the kind of book I would normally pick up, but I’m glad I persevered – I finished it off in two sittings. Be sure to read the author’s note at the end of the book, it’s really enlightening to find out how Christina’s character’s lives took turns that where unexpected even to her.