Grief is a funny thing. Sometimes, people grieve not for what was but for what could’ve been, mostly in their imagination. In this book, Emma is dead. She appears in the prologue as a sixteen-year-old girl, and then, two decades later, a year after her death, the entire story unfolds. It involves Emma’s childhood friends – the beach girls – plus her widower and her nine-year-old daughter. And like in her childhood, the story still revolves around Emma.
I didn’t like what I learned about Emma from the memories of her friends and her family. If she was still alive, they might’ve said: “What a heartless bitch.” I definitely wanted to say that. But she is dead. She died tragically, so nobody who knew her want to believe their own knowledge and their own memories of that self-absorbed, shallow woman. They mourn her anyway. They should’ve counted their blessings instead, but the whole novel comes from their mourning.
And it is a good story, a story of love, forgiveness, and understanding. A story of renewal and second chances. It would’ve been a much simpler story without Emma in it, but life doesn’t always work in simple ways. Neither does fiction. With all Emma’s faults, she obviously had something good in her: she was a good mother for one of the protagonists, her young daughter Nell.
I don’t often like adult books incorporating a child’s POV. It feels a bit like voyeurism, as if I’m peeking into the grieving heart of a child, but in this case, Nell’s grief for her late mother drives the story. Nell’s search for happiness gives the story its complex shape and its flavor of innocence. Nell wants her mother back, yes, but as a young child, she also wants to forget, to move forward, to find someone new and wonderful to love. Unconsciously, as only a young child could, Nell forces her father to face his demons, defeat them, and allow a new love into their lives.
The two other lead characters, Nell’s father Jack and Emma’s old friend Stevie, unite in their love for Nell, and that love brings them together. Both are lonely. Both are afraid to do harm: to Nell, to each other, and to their own hearts. Only Nell is the brave one in the story. She doesn’t yet know bitterness or disappointment. She knows only love, and she spreads it around without reservations in her quest for a new family. Life is simple when you’re only nine.
Ironically, the most cowardly creature of the three protagonists is the only man in the story, Nell’s father Jack. He is afraid the most. Afraid to trust again. Afraid to make a mistake. Afraid to step into the unknown. Afraid to acknowledge the truth. He resists the new love the hardest. And like a typical man (sorry, my male friends) he makes everyone who loves him suffer because of his cowardice. He makes decisions without consulting anyone, runs away to hide from his unhappiness (which never works, as we all know), even disregards his beloved daughter’s feelings, and only a miracle brings the happy ending to this poignant tale.
Overall, it was a good read, if a bit too sentimental and somewhat slower than I prefer. I’m an impatient reader. I always want the plot to move along, to know what happens next as soon as possible, while the author kept getting in my way by describing the beach and the pines. Beautiful descriptions too. Other than that, I liked this novel.