In the summer of 1951, Miranda Schuyler arrives on elite, secretive Winthrop Island as a schoolgirl from the margins of high society, still reeling from the loss of her father in the Second World War. When her beautiful mother marries Hugh Fisher, whose summer house on Winthrop overlooks the famous lighthouse, Miranda’s catapulted into a heady new world of pedigrees and cocktails, status and swimming pools. Isobel Fisher, Miranda’s new stepsister—all long legs and world-weary bravado, engaged to a wealthy Island scion—is eager to draw Miranda into the arcane customs of Winthrop society.
But beneath the island’s patrician surface, there are really two clans: the summer families with their steadfast ways and quiet obsessions, and the working class of Portuguese fishermen and domestic workers who earn their living on the water and in the laundries of the summer houses. Uneasy among Isobel’s privileged friends, Miranda finds herself drawn to Joseph Vargas, whose father keeps the lighthouse with his mysterious wife. In summer, Joseph helps his father in the lobster boats, but in the autumn he returns to Brown University, where he’s determined to make something of himself. Since childhood, Joseph’s enjoyed an intense, complex friendship with Isobel Fisher, and as the summer winds to its end, Miranda’s caught in a catastrophe that will shatter Winthrop’s hard-won tranquility and banish Miranda from the island for nearly two decades.
Now, in the landmark summer of 1969, Miranda returns at last, as a renowned Shakespearean actress hiding a terrible heartbreak. On its surface, the Island remains the same—determined to keep the outside world from its shores, fiercely loyal to those who belong. But the formerly powerful Fisher family is a shadow of itself, and Joseph Vargas has recently escaped the prison where he was incarcerated for the murder of Miranda’s stepfather eighteen years earlier. What’s more, Miranda herself is no longer a naïve teenager, and she begins a fierce, inexorable quest for justice for the man she once loved . . . even if it means uncovering every last one of the secrets that bind together the families of Winthrop Island.
In the summer of 1951, Miranda Schulyer comes to Winthrop Island. Having lost her father in the war, Miranda and her mother have now relocated to the island where her mother has recently become engaged to wealthy Hugh Fisher. Miranda is immediately thrown into a whole new heady world of money and spoiled socialites, one being her new stepsister, Isobel Fisher. While finding her footing in this new arena of privilege, Miranda also becomes acquainted with the other side, the island's working class, made up mostly of immigrant families. Befriending Joseph Vargas, the lighthouse keeper's son, Miranda gets to see all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into keeping the world of the elite running smoothly.
Isobel, having grown up around Joseph, is already deeply attached to him. The more time Miranda spends around him, the stronger her interest grows as well. Is that a flirtation she senses between Isobel and Joseph, or is Miranda misreading the cues? It looks like it's not just her with suspicions --- Isobel happens to be engaged, and one night her fiance pulls Miranda aside to specifically ask her to keep Isobel away from Joseph.
The Vargas family line is a little tricky to keep straight, especially once Hugh Fisher gets thrown in the mix, but I think it's something like this (the story the reader is given through flashback scenes): In the 1930s, Hugh falls in love with Francisca, who is engaged to Pascoal Vargas, the lighthouse keeper. Bianca Medeiro, a cousin of Francisca's, works in the local convenience store and is secretly in love with Hugh. Hugh begins to pay attention to Bianca, flirt with her (maybe as a consolation prize?). Bianca envisions a real future between them as husband and wife, but he warns her right off the bat that he's "a drunkard and a cad"... but she only sees "an artist, a dreamer". To complicate matters further, Hugh himself is engaged to socialite Abigail Dumont while he's continuing this dalliance with Bianca. When Bianca finally sees the truth that her fairytale life is not to be, she goes and cheats Francisca out of HER potential HEA. And so implodes the Vargas family line with drama and subsequent tragedies.
By 1951, when Miranda's part of the story starts, Abigail and Hugh have long been divorced, allowing for Hugh and Miranda's mother to marry.
The story fast-forwards to 1969. Miranda is now well into adulthood, an internationally beloved movie star married to a highly respected director. But something seems to have happened between them because out of the blue, Miranda decides to return to Winthrop Island for a family visit, her first in quite some time. Islanders are suspicious that her arrival is connected to the news that Joseph Vargas, who has been incarcerated for many years for the murder of Hugh Fisher, has recently escaped prison. Readers are only given a few details here and there regarding the night that forever changed Joseph Vargas' life, some of those details casting doubt as to if he was really to blame or merely took the fall to protect someone else.
Though Miranda might be curious to know what's really going on with Joseph, her summer is frenzied enough between helping her mother do renovations to the Fisher mansion, catching up with old acquaintances, and getting to know her teenage half-brother she hadn't met before this trip back home.
" I know it's not the Winthrop way. We don't ask questions. We pretend everything is just fine and then drink ourselves to death. Or get murdered by the lighthouse keeper, for some reason nobody on this damned island is ever going to talk about."
~ Hugh Fisher, Jr.
During Miranda's flashback memories, enlightening the reader as to why she so suddenly decided to return to Winthrop Island, we learn of this mildly Svengali-esque relationship she's had over the years with her director husband, Carroll, an older man. Over time, this union has gradually become more and more abusive. Miranda feels pulled to return to the island as she tries to come to terms with a recent tragedy of her own. When comparing these various flashback scenes looking back over several decades, there are similarities between the way Carroll treats Miranda in the 1950s-60s and how Hugh is with Bianca in the 1930s.
Fans of light historical fiction will likely eat this one up. The family dramas over the multiple generations and eras of history are entertaining, though a bit slow in pace for me at times. I have to say, my favorite scene was the Moon Landing party where Miranda makes a note of the crescent moon that night, and another girl at the party comments, "You'd think they'd wait for a full moon to do this." The way it's described as everyone slowly turning to look at her... honest LOL moment for me!
The last portion of the book veered a little too far into soap opera territory for me, and the big reveal moment wasn't too hard to guess, long before the scene actually came.
** NOTE: There is some mildly sexually explicit material scattered throughout the novel.
FTC DISCLAIMER: William Morrow (HarperCollins) Publishing kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.