Her beloved nanny, Hannah, vanished without a trace in the summer of 1988, leaving seven-year-old Jocelyn Holt was devastated. She believed that Hannah truly loved and cared for her, but her relationship with her mother was also distant, troubled. In the wake of Hannah’s departure, Jo grew up haunted by the loss, bitter and distant. Eventually, she left her parents and Lake Hall, their faded aristocratic home, behind.
Thirty years later, Jo returns with her young daughter because she has nowhere else to go. She is forced by circumstances to confront her troubled relationship with her mother.
But shortly after her return, human remains are discovered in the lake situated on the estate, and Jo begins to question everything she thought she knew about her parents and her childhood.
Then an unexpected visitor further upsets Jo’s world. Jo is desperate to piece together the gaping holes in her memory. Who was her nanny really? Why did she leave so abruptly? Can she trust her own mother?
Secrets, lies, and deception . . . as Jo searches for the truth, author Gilly MacMillan explores the darkest impulses and desires of the human heart. Sometimes the truth hurts so much that you’d rather hear the lie.
Who can you trust with your child?
Jo returns home broken following the sudden death of her husband, Chris. She must put the interests of their five-year-old daughter, Ruby, ahead of all else. While Chris’s business affairs are sorted out, she plans to stay with her mother, a “seventy-year-old relic of the English aristocracy, cold, old-fashioned, snobbish, selfish, greed, and fluent in the Queen’s English.” Jo’s father is deceased and she hasn’t seen her mother in a decade. From Jo’s perspective, her mother bullied her throughout her childhood to the point that she found it necessary to “put an ocean between” herself and her childhood. To her horror, she sees a relationship between Ruby and her “Granny” instantly forming and she is powerless to prevent it because her grief over the loss of her husband is “so intense it feels as if I’m bleeding out.” She wonders how she can possibly mother Ruby and worries that her mother will take her place in her child’s life.
Against that backdrop, as Jo and Ruby explore the shore of the island situated in the middle of the lake, Ruby discovers a human skull with fracture lines across the dome. The authorities begin investigating, using DNA and other techniques to ascertain the decedent’s age and identity. Could it be Hannah’s remains? After all, she was never heard from again after she suddenly left the Holts’ employ.
MacMillan relates the story through alternating first-person narratives from Jo and her mother, Virginia. The discovery of the human remains sends both women into an emotional frenzy. For Jo, it brings “a strange, creeping sense of inevitability” as she posits whether it could explain what happened to Hannah. But for Virginia, the ongoing police investigation threatens the revelation of secrets that she has kept for many years. As the story progresses, MacMillan makes clear that nothing the police learn is going to come as a surprise to Virginia, and there are even more things about her character and her past that are deeply troubling. Yet Virginia has suffered her share of heartache and disappointment, observing that “[t]o have a child whom you love but who does not love you back is a particularly intense and unrelenting source of pain.” She remains baffled by Jo’s attitude toward her, and expresses a desire to “pass on to Ruby all that is good about me while I can and I want to do it before things happen that will sully her view of me.” She speculates that a time will come in the near future when she “shall disappoint and even horrify her.” MacMillan teases readers with clues, but keeps them guessing about what exactly Virginia is alluding to.
The only guileless character is little Ruby, a typical little girl thrust into the grief of losing a parent and the upheaval that followed it. She must start a new school, attempt to make new friends, and adjust to living in the ancestral home of a grandfather she will never now while getting acquainted with a grandmother she has never met before. Her new life is nothing at all like the one she left behind in California.
Jo is in the midst of a personal crisis as a result of losing her husband, financial security, and the home she built with him far away from the disturbing memories of her childhood. Jo grew up believing that her mother was the source of all of her problems, but Virginia’s narrative show that was not the case. Her father had his own challenges, problems, and limitations. She adored he father, but felt that they “lived with our hands stretched out toward each other but were never able to touch. Mother got in our way.” In her grief and desperation, Jo is gullible. Her naivete might prove to be her downfall. In fact, it could prove to be deadly. MacMillan ratchets up the dramatic tension as Jo makes one bad decision after another.
And MacMillan injects a third-person narrative, detailing the activities of another woman. Linda Taylor escaped a brutal, abusive childhood and reinvented herself many years ago. How does she figure into the mystery unfolding in the Holt family?
Through a cleverly-plotted mystery, MacMillan illustrates how Jo’s long-held assumptions have informed her own decision-making. But she was not the only member of the Holt family who misunderstood what was happening right before her eyes, the import of those events, or the long-lasting consequences thereof. Each of the three women at the center of the tale is flawed in significant ways. Those flaws not only compel the action forward at an unrelenting pace. They also make those characters intriguing and keep readers guessing about their moral ambiguities right up to the shocking conclusion.
At the heart of MacMillan’s family drama is a surprisingly touching examination of the mother-daughter relationship. In MacMillan’s capable hands, neither Jo nor Virginia is fully good or evil. Rather, both are victims not only of their own choices, but of jealousy, misperceptions, assumptions, manipulations, and betrayals that MacMillan reveals at defty-timed junctures, the cumulative total of which has led them to their current crisis.
Can the villainous plans that have been set into motion be discovered and derailed in time to save Jo and Virginia, as well as innocent Ruby? Leave it to MacMillan to deliver a jaw-dropping ending that raises as many questions as it answers.
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