In this unique melding of psychological drama, ghost story and thriller, three women are on a collision path and bound to meet eventually on an isolated island. Each has secrets, regrets and yearnings, which are explored in depth, giving readers the feeling that we know them, even though we may not find each one to be a purely sympathetic character.
Heart Island belongs to 75-year-old Birdie Burke, who has enjoyed vacations there her entire life. Now she prepares to welcome her family for a reunion, although "welcome" is not the way her daughter Kate would describe her mother's usual chilly attitude. Birdie's husband, Joe, has decided to return to the city while Birdie gets the place ready for guests. Birdie is swimming the perimeter of the lake and thinking of all the things she must accomplish --- shopping, cleaning, cooking --- before her children and grandkids gather. She is disheartened that she can't manage to swim the entire distance, the way she did when she was younger. Old age is an inconvenience to someone who once believed herself to be unbeatable.
As she wearily slips into her robe, Birdie realizes that someone is standing on the edge of the trees near her house. She can't make out the figure since she doesn't have her glasses on, but can tell it's a tall, narrow man (definitely not Joe). When she calls to the stranger, asking him who he is and chastising him for trespassing, he doesn't answer and vanishes. Birdie can't decide if she fantasized the figure or if it really appeared. The incident makes her unsettled and nibbles away at her, rousing mysterious memories from her childhood.
Birdie's daughter, Kate, is miffed that brother Theo is not going to be at the family gathering. He claims he just cannot handle his parents anymore. Sadly, Kate knows just how he feels. She dislikes being with her mother but just cannot bring herself to disappoint Birdie. During this trip, Kate has big news but dreads telling her mother, who is sure to belittle her triumph. Kate not only has written a novel (somewhat based on her Aunt Caroline's journals, which reveal startling family secrets), she has also sold it at auction. Birdie is bound to point out that Kate is quite old to be "finally doing something" after spending most of her adult life as a devoted mother to young teen Chelsea and Chelsea's younger half-brother, Brendan.
Kate knows her rock-solid second husband, Sean, will help her tolerate the visit with her mother. However, after their son injures an ankle and Sean has to work, they decide that father and son will travel to Heart Island later on. Meanwhile, in an action all three will eventually regret, Kate, Chelsea and Chelsea's friend leave alone.
Emily is a waitress at a restaurant called the Blue Hen, where she enjoys the job and her coworkers. Her boyfriend, Dean, can't understand why she would want to work so hard. Of course, Dean is unemployed and struggles with a drug problem. He has caused a rift between Emily and her mother, Martha, who has told Emily repeatedly that Dean is no good and that he will ruin Emily's life. When Emily meets Dean's friend, Brad, looking into his dead eyes, the downward path of her life accelerates, hurtling her toward the worst imaginable nightmare that will eventually lead her to Heart Island.
This page-turner is multi-layered and intriguing, as master storyteller Lisa Unger weaves a compelling plotline from the disparate threads of these women's lives. Characters are fully fleshed out and three-dimensional, making them people readers care about. A leisurely paced buildup instills a dark and terrible dread, fully realized in the last urgent chapters. Ominous sightings of a ghostly figure and a more corporeal menace lend even more foreboding to a nail-biting good read.