This is a novel of sensations — some painfully sharp ... Beneath the glittering surface of these lives swirl suppressed horrors, trauma and sexual deviancy. Elle and Jonah are bound by childhood summers together, but also a dreadful secret. Elle, her sister, Anna, and their mother, Wallace, are products of damaging divorces and dangerous remarriages ... The romantic dilemma that propels the narrative is less compelling than the novel’s deft characterisations, tangle of family ties and, most memorably, its earthy, intoxicating, shimmering sense of place.
Elle Bishop, the narrator of Miranda Cowley Heller’s appealing debut novel, has spent every summer of her 50-odd years in a family cabin in the backwoods of Cape Cod ... To say, as reviewers like to, that she 'gets the details right' would be to exoticize elements that feel as natural in Heller’s hands as the early-morning swim Elle takes, when the novel opens, after a tumultuous night ... Doubly blessed when it comes to descriptive powers, Heller is as good on nature as she is on interiors ... The novel’s 'past' narrative, which traces Elle’s infancy, childhood, adolescence and eventual marriage, also rings true to the reader — so true, in fact, that at times this novel starts to feel like a memoir with an infidelity plot tacked on ... Rather than working in the service of the story, the accumulation of so many minor characters, and the highly specific detail of everything from Elle’s grandmother’s estate in Guatemala to her stepfather’s best friend’s farm in Vermont, suggest a faithful, factual recounting — whether or not they have anything to do with Heller’s real life.
The moody and atmospheric setting of the shadowy paths and ponds of the Back Woods is described in lush detail that makes a sharp contrast to the colder, sharper elements of Elle’s story. But the long-held secrets that Elle reveals and reckons with over the course of her day of decision cast the biggest shadow over her life and will inform the rest of her days. From the first pages of her debut novel, Heller pulls no punches. Some of them just sneak up on you later on.