An exploration of loss spanning two centuries from the author of Lake People (2013).

Jane is 12 when her older sister, Henrietta, disappears from their New England town. This is sometime around the turn of the millennium and 20 years before Jane begins her tale. In the 1850s, Claire is still living at home with her parents when her older sister, Elspeth, stops sending letters from America. What unites these two narratives—aside from the coincidences—is a building in the woods. In Elspeth’s time, it’s the house her husband built for her and their children. In Jane’s time, it’s a ruin and the setting of fables her father tells his two girls. This is an ungainly book, more like two unfinished novels loosely stitched together than a coherent, multifaceted whole. Jane narrates her own story, but she never emerges as a real person. That she remains a shadow of her older sister makes psychological sense, but it makes for a boring character. And Henrietta herself is, in the sections narrated by Jane, little more than a sexually precocious loner and a bit of a jerk. It’s hard to see what makes her so fascinating that Jane doesn’t seem to have a life of her own even before Henrietta’s disappearance rips a hole in everything. And Henrietta remains inscrutable even when she’s describing her experiences in her own voice. More than that, the portion of the novel that covers Henrietta’s early days on her own is simply incredible. Readers are expected to believe that a 15-year-old girl with no form of identification is able to get two jobs and buy a car. The fact that one of these jobs is as the caretaker of an empty and isolated home is also fantastically convenient. This teen also pays for everything with crisp $100 bills that she clips from uncut sheets herself with scissors; this stolen fortune is another astonishingly lucky break for the runaway. The sections of the book set in the 19th century are slightly more compelling, but, even here, the text reads more like notes toward a novel than a finished work.

Odd and unsatisfying.

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