Beth is a married mother of three whose world comes crashing down on her when she discovers a note in the mailbox telling her that her husband Jimmy is cheating on her. She kicks him out and has to start the process of healing and of adjusting to life as a single mom. Her questions about how they got to where they did and her grief and despair are palpable in her story. Slowly she discovers that she must find the self she hid away long ago before she can consider what the future might hold. One of the things that she allowed to fall by the wayside in her marriage and motherhood is her love of writing, something she determines to reclaim even as she continues going about her daily life as a year rounder on the island of Nantucket.
Olivia has just separated from her husband and moved to Nantucket to the vacation home they once shared. She is not only mourning the loss of her marriage but she is still deeply frozen in grief over the death of her non-verbal autistic eight year old son. Anthony suffered a subdural hematoma after falling during a seizure and his loss has left her with so many questions, foremost among them whether he knew she loved him if he himself didn't have words and what the meaning of his short life was. The extreme isolation of Nantucket in the winter turns out to be a perfect place for Olivia to escape from the sorrow of Anthony's loss and the sadness that caring for him exhausted she and David so much that they couldn't find their way back together in the shared wake of his death.
While these two story lines do eventually come together, getting there took altogether too much time. Initially the parallel seems to be the women's disintegrating marriages but there's really no similarity to them at all. Of course, there's also the prologue where Beth adds a round white rock to Anthony's line of white rocks on the beach years prior, meant to convey Beth's sympathy for this unknown and clearly unusual child and perhaps lays the groundwork for a later fantastical occurrence. The narrative jumps back and forth between Beth and Olivia, with Olivia's portions also containing reminiscences of life with Anthony. Beth's portions come to include pieces of the novel she starts to write, a novel from the perspective of an autistic boy. Neither Beth nor Olivia was really all that well fleshed out as characters and the jumps in time in the narrative compressed feelings, moving Olivia and Beth along their own timelines without giving any sense of the hard work they had to be doing. Olivia's sense of alienation and her sorrow over the end of her marriage is more examined than Beth's feelings about her marriage, perhaps because David is rarely present in the narrative while Jimmy, still living and working on Nantucket, is. And if Genova hadn't gone farther, it would have been an okay but not great book centered more on marriages and how they fall apart than on autism. Instead, she uses Beth's book to turn the focus entirely. Beth writing about a child with autism without any direct experience of such didn't bother me at all. That she could so easily capture such a child without any research at all did. And the twist offered to explain this was a bridge too far.
SPOILER (highlight to read)
The parallels between the boy in Beth's book and Olivia's Anthony started small enough but soon ballooned into absurdity. That Beth was in actual fact channeling Anthony rather than writing a book of her own cheapened Beth's effort to re-connect with writing and with her former interests. In fact, it is clearly Anthony's book, not Beth's. Can she really be said to have started writing again if it is all because she is his conduit? I can certainly buy the idea that Anthony had an active internal voice and unexpressed (because of his non-verbalness) reasons for his outward actions but the passages in his voice felt contrived and inauthentic, reading more as if this is what the author hopes is true than as a true possibility. As if this isn't bad enough, the excerpted parts of Anthony's story are actually rather dull after a while and unlikely to be the kernel of a viable novel. The ending of the larger novel was a let down as well. Beth's sense that the words "you don't have the right ending yet" referred to more than just the novel was a trite about-face after all her measured thinking and hard fought conclusion about her marriage to Jimmy. Maybe getting back together with him was the "right ending" but it was too easy and too unexplained after all that went before it. Olivia's ending was equally easy and unearned. As for Anthony's final letter presented in the epilogue, call me heartless, but I felt manipulated rather than satisfied but maybe this was residual annoyance with what had gone before.
Obviously this had major problems for me and I'm sorry for that because I wanted to be amazed. Maybe the problem was that Genova had to channel her most interesting character (Anthony) and his thoughts through another character rather than him telling his own story, all of his own story, through his perspective. Having Anthony dead for the entire narrative made it more obvious the toll it can take caring for a child like him, who needs so much that giving to a spouse and even keeping a sense of yourself, is wildly difficult, but it also meant far less of him, his thinking, and the daily life he led in a world not designed for him. The subject of autism is a fascinating one and I wish this had delivered on it so much more than I felt it did. On the other hand, there are many rave reviews of the book so you might want to discount my opinion entirely!