When I opened “The Bookshop at Water’s End,” I was sort of expecting a quick women’s beach read. But Patti Callahan Henry’s story of two families and their intertwining lives offered more than the jacket picture of a barefoot girl walking on pilings where a river meets the sea. The bookshop owner frame hints at mystery, tangled alliances, despair and dashed dreams.
Between the covers, the emergency room error by Dr. Bonny Blankenship, and her efforts to come to terms with the death of a patient, jump right into other mistakes looming before her. Her decision to return to the summer house where a woman disappeared, leaving her two best friends, Lainey McKay and her brother Owen motherless, brought on more heartache.
Add that to the fact her marriage had been a mistake from the beginning, and that her daughter Piper was trapped by the tension between her parents, failing in college and in her own personal challenges.
The way Henry brought forth tragedies, puzzles, enigmas, and then tackled each in its turn, like peeling an onion, took real writing talent. The pacing, going from Bonny, to Lainey, to Piper, and to bookshop owner Mimi, from the tragic summer of 1978 up to 2016, answered each question seamlessly, then moved on to more mysteries.
Mimi watched and lent a friendly ear and presence at the bookshop as Bonny and Lainey read Nancy Drew mysteries, then looked everywhere for clues for any secret they could drum up. Their notebook held remarks on strange behaviors of Lainey’s mother. Lainey’s and Owen’s father found the scribblings in the detectives’ journal, and exploded on his wife Clara, who disappeared that night.
Lainey had never given up her search for her mother, though she promised her husband that she would stop. At Water’s End Piper learned more about her real self by tending Lainey’s children, George, 4, and Daisey, 8.
Owen is a presence on the phone to Bonny as he flashes in and out of her life. She realizes she has loved him since that fateful week in 1978, but the disappearance of his mother has scarred Owen for life, she believes, since he stays on the move, constantly calling her, ignoring his sister. The father quickly moves on and the two have been raised by an uninvolved aunt. The pages kept turning as I tried to conjure up a cure for such an enormous tragedy.
That Blankenship, who has wanted to be a doctor more than anything else since she was a little girl, may have killed a patient by an accidental overdose of a painkiller, throbs throughout the fast-paced action of the return to the summer house. Looming over her is the dread she may not only lose a job she had applied for in another city, but she is likely to face charges in the death of the patient. Not just her livelihood, but the life she loved, hangs in the balance.
Owen is a bigger than life presence, though she has not actually seen him since just before her wedding. She had loved him and waited for him for a long time, while he built a business on risk and danger, and had popped in and out at will. After she married Lucas, hoping to get a chance at normalcy, what was left of that was her dearest love, her daughter. One prayer was that Piper might figure out her own path in life while spending a summer at Watersend, South Carolina.
The bookshop does draw Piper like a magnet. She discovers a young man who is the opposite of one who dumped her for someone else, spends time with him, starts a book club and immerses herself in a slower pace, a contented way, of life.
Disaster strikes again. They are all involved, plus a woman who has been a friend of the missing mother. Answers shoot out, like cannonballs. Some good, some not so good, some confusing, and some others that define logic. It’s a great read, like jumping on an unknown horse, and winning the race at the end.
Filled with wisdom, thought-provoking passages, "The Bookshop at Water's End" (Penguin Random House) develops an inward gaze so that the reader looks deep, deep into the questions whirling around.
Sue Cronkite is a local writer and editor, publisher of Panhandle history books and library researcher. Her fiction writing credits include State Street Review, Sabal Palm Review, Copper Blade Review, and Nuts to Us anthologies.