Disclaimer! I got a free ARC of this through NetGalley. I have not been promised anything in return for this review, although if people wanted to start bribing me to read their books, that would be ok too.
Kate Pheris has been a widow for a year, and has been sleep-walking through her life since her husband Matt died. Now her house has been sold, her and her daughter's things are all packed and they're all set to move in with her mother-in-law, who has all sorts of plans for how they're going to get everything sorted out. Yet finally emerging from her grief, Kate realises that she doesn't want to live with her mother-in-law, and she doesn't want her daughter Devin to go to private school, forced to wear a school uniform and stifle her natural creativity. Having never really had to manage on her own, she's not sure what she will do, but she's sure that just settling for her mother-in-law's plans are not it. When Devin finds an old postcard in a trunk in the attic, Kate is reminded of her great-aunt Eby and her holiday cottages at Lost Lake. Kate spent a few weeks there when she was twelve, and as she has only fond memories from the place, she packs up Devin and they go off to see if Eby is still there.
Eby Pim is still at Lost Lake, but has at long last decided that she's going to sell her land and the holiday cottages to a pushy developer, as she is old and dreams of travelling back to Europe, where she and her husband George spent their honeymoon in the early 1960s. Apart from a few elderly regulars, no one ever comes to Lost Lake anymore, and the struggle to keep the place running is becoming too much for Eby. Apparently Eby was the exception in a long line of beautiful Morris women who were all beautiful, with striking green eyes, but who tended to marry unwisely, and were incapable of managing money, so always had to grasp for more. Everyone thought that the gorgeous Marilee, Eby's younger sister, would catch herself a wealthy husband, but she fell in love with a gas station attendant. Instead Eby found the rich suitor, when the boy she'd loved for most of her life came into an unexpected fortune, and proposed to her. Trying to escape her greedy relatives, Eby and George want to spend as much time alone in Europe as possible, but have to return when Marilee is left widowed with a young daughter. Surprising everyone, Eby and George give all of their money away to worthy causes, after settling Eby's mother and sister in comfort, and buying the property at Lost Lake.
Having determined to sell, Eby sends word to the few of the regulars who still visit the camp, but they insist on coming to visit anyway. Selma, Buladeen and Jack can't resist a final visit to the place they've spent every summer for so long. Jack is hoping to finally confess his love to Lisette, the French cook who has lived with Eby for most of her life. While on their honeymoon, Eby and George came across then sixteen year old Lisette, jumping from a bridge after Luc, the boy she rejected hanged himself. Horrified by her actions, Lisette was determined to take her own life, but was rescued by Eby, and decided to stay with her ever since. Born without a voice box, she communicates through written notes, that she burns after she shows them to people. Lisette is haunted by the ghost of Luc, who sits on a chair in her kitchen. She knows why Jack returns every summer, but is terrified that she will break his heart the way she once broke the teenage boy's.
Wes Patterson, who owns the land adjoining Eby's at Lost Lake, is resigned to selling to his uncle once Eby gives in. The only really happy time he spent at the place were the two weeks when Kate visited that summer long ago, and they spent pretty much every waking hour together, with Wes' younger brother Billy trailing after them. Wes' father was a drunk who beat the boys and mistreated them, only Eby and George really showed them any affection. When his father and Billy died in a fire that burned their home to the ground, shortly after Kate left, Wes went to live with a foster mother. He's never been able to forget that summer, or Kate, and is shocked to see her again after so long.
Devin loves it at Lost Lake, and despite the place being run-down, Kate feels at peace there too. Once the townspeople realise that Eby is serious about selling the place, they decide to show her just how important she and the camp have been to all of them, and perhaps they can manage to change her mind about selling. Buladeen, one of the holiday regulars is certainly determined to change Eby's mind. A retired English teacher from a wretchedly poor background, who's always been a voracious reader since she was taught to read, she's fully aware that not all endings are happy. She also knows that plots don't always take the most predictable turns, and that it's important to work to succeed in your hopes and dreams. She comes every summer with Selma, another elderly woman with barely any female friends. The daughter of an unfaithful man, Selma was given eight magic charms by one of her father's mistresses. With these charms, she can lure unhappily married men away from their wives and make them fall madly in love with her. As a result, most women tend to dislike her, and none of her marriages have lasted more than five years. Now she only has one charm left, which she's saving for something big. She claims she doesn't like Lost Lake, or understands why Buladeen insists on claiming that they're friends, but she returns every year, nonetheless.
I'm a huge fan of Sarah Addison Allen's earlier books, my particular favourites being Garden Spells and The Peach Keeper. Reading the acknowledgements for this book, I realised that the reason there was such a gap between The Peach Keeper and this coming out, is because the author has been struggling with breast cancer. I didn't know that when I picked this book as my fifty-second book, and the one I completed my first Cannonball with, but now I'm so glad I did, because it's extra appropriate. Cancer is a horrible disease, and I'm so glad that I can help collect money to fight it by reading books that I love and blogging about them for others.
As in Allen's previous books, family ties are strong in this one, as are those of friendship. There are absolutely magical realism elements, such as Lisette's ghostly reminder, the alligator who only Devin seems able to see and who sends her on a quest and Selma's love charms. Yet the main focus of the book is love and friendship and how different people deal with losing their loved ones, and to what degree they pick themselves back up again and carry on. It's clear that most of the women in Kate and Eby's family love fiercely and passionately, but fall apart completely once their love dies, to the detriment of the next generation. Eby never had children, and was lucky enough to have friends and Lost Lake to help her through her grief. Kate is nearly unmade by her grief, but manages to surface and fight to secure a chance of future happiness for Devin and herself. I was so happy when I was granted the ARC for this, and then I forgot it for a bit again. I'm so glad I finally got the chance to read it, and will absolutely buy it, so I can own it like I do all of Allen's other books.
And with this, I complete my first Cannonball of 2014! Whohoo!