This mysterious and mesmerizing triptych of a novel opens with widowed Margaret Quinn opening her door and finding a child, half-frozen, shivering on her doorstep. She takes this orphaned waif in, dubbing her Norah assuming that the tattered and torn piece of paper pinned to her coat is the start of her name. As Margaret makes this orphaned child comfortable and warm, she is thrown back into her memories of her own daughter, Erica, as a child. Erica had run away from home ten years before to join a radical group called the Angels of Destruction. Norah's presence, which Margaret explains away by saying that the child is her granddaughter come to live with her while her parents work out their difficulties, starts to heal the wounds in Margaret's heart. Norah also befriends an emotionally hurt, young, local boy named Sean, whose father has abandonned his mother and him. Sean knows the secret that Norah is not really Margaret's granddaughter but conspires with Margaret to keep this hidden from the rest of the town, and even from Margaret's own sister. What neither Margaret or Sean know is what Norah really is or from where she's arrived. Sean sees her perform small miracles or impossibilities and starts to believe Norah's assertion that she is an angel, and assertion that will cause the unravelling of everything.
The second portion of the book moves back into the past, into Erica's adolescence. Margaret's husband Paul and Erica butt heads in more ways than just as typical father and teenaged daughter, growing more and more estranged and contemptuous of each other as Erica falls even harder for the boyfriend her father so disdains. Boyfriend Wiley is very obviously a loose cannon, even before he convinces Erica to run away with him and travel cross-country to join the revolutionary group Angels of Destruction. But Erica takes off anyway, escaping the father she thinks completely hypocritical and the mother she barely considers but whose heart she breaks. Much of the second part of the book details Erica and Wiley's flight to the West, including a long and unplanned stopover in the Tennessee mountains when Erica is ill and they are taken in by a grandmother and her otherwordly granddaughter Una, who bears a remarkable resemblence to the Norah who will appear 10 years later at Margaret's door.
The third part of the book moves back to Margaret and Norah together, beautifully tying the threads of the first two narratives together as the novel's inevitable denouement plays out. There is an elegaic feel to the writing in this novel and Donohue skillfully keeps from answering the reader's questions about Norah and her reality. Is she an angel sent to thaw Margaret's frozen heart and help heal Sean or is she a mentally unbalanced little girl or is she exactly who she claimed at the start of the novel, an orphaned child who appeared out of nowhere and beckoned by the light in the Quinn house? In this novel of damaged characters and rejected love, there are no easy and simple answers. The ending is both a surprise and not a surprise, striking in its inevitability. Despite knowing there will be no answers, there is almost a compulsion to keep reading, to come to the end, to know the little that we will be granted. This is quite simply an obsessive and ensnaring novel.