Stella Brentwood, now 65, reluctantly gives up her career to retire in a West Country village. There, she buys a cottage sight unseen, adopts a dog, and attempts domesticity for the first time in her life. Like foreign correspondent Claudia Hampton of the Booker Prize winning Moon Tiger, Stella has had an unusual career at a time when women had little place in the work world. The two women are similar in that they prefer the excitement of new places and new lovers to the comforts afforded by marriage. But comparisons end here. Claudia is a cold woman who never shows her daughter any sort of love. Stella is kind and empathetic; she is merely an adventurer who prefers to study linage and kinship as an observer rather than as a participant. In fact, she sets about her new life in this sleepy hamlet as a kind of social experiment.
She was sixty-five, apparently. This totemic number had landed her here. Having spent much time noting and interpreting complex rites of passage in alien societies, she now found herself subject to one of the implacable rules of her own: stop working, get old.
She had plans. There were articles that she intended to write for the journals of her trade. She would keep her hand in professionally. But she would branch out, also...
And I will get a dog...A dog is appropriate, in a place like this, it would serve as a credential. I live here now--this is the end of the line, the last stop. (p. 15)
But is it? The novel goes back and forth, from past to present, unveiling Stella's former life while depicting her present one. We see Stella as a caring observer as she visits primitive cultures and carefully records their relationships. We also see how people from her former life have now returned and are part of the landscape. Have they changed, or is Stella less skilled at observing life that comes too close to her?
Into this sleepy hollow, Lively has placed a wolf. It comes in the guise of a dysfunctional family. The reader comes to know them, not from Stella's voice, but from the ominous thoughts of the adolescent sons. They provide narrative tension that builds as the novel comes to its surprising conclusion.
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