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Some houses have a personality of their own. Larchmere is that kind of place—a splendid, sprawling home with breathtaking views that open to briny Atlantic air and seabirds’ calls. It’s the place where Tilda McQueen O’Connell grew up and now vacations each year, ...
Some houses have a personality of their own. Larchmere is that kind of place—a splendid, sprawling home with breathtaking views that open to briny Atlantic air and seabirds’ calls. It’s the place where Tilda McQueen O’Connell grew up and now vacations each year, and where she and her three siblings—Adam, Hannah, and Craig—have gathered to commemorate the tenth anniversary of their mother’s passing.
But instead of the bittersweet but relaxing reunion Tilda expected, she finds chaos. Her father’s plan to marry a younger woman has thrown the fate of the beach house into uncertainty. For Tilda, the stakes seem the highest. Alone and vulnerable two years after her husband’s death, she sees Larchmere as not just a cherished part of her history, but her eventual refuge from the world. Faced with losing that legacy, Tilda must embrace an unknown future. And all the McQueens must reconcile their shared, sometimes painful past—and learn how to love one another even when it means forging a life apart…
“An honest, forceful novel about love, family, and sacrifice.” --Booklist on One Week In December
Tilda McQueen O'Connell had gotten to Ogunquit, and to the house, Larchmere, well before noon. She had left South Portland around ten-thirty, hoping to avoid commuter traffic (which was never very bad going south, anyway), made a stop at a farm stand for blueberries, and gotten to the house just as her father was leaving for a golf game with his old friend and personal lawyer, Teddy Vickes.
Tilda had noted that her father, Bill McQueen, looked hale and hardy, wearing his favorite blue Oxford shirt and that goofy hat he loved. And he had seemed in a particularly good humor. He had even laughed about the inevitability of his losing to Teddy. Not that Bill was, by nature, a grim or dour man. It was just that Tilda had not seen him quite so upbeat in a long time. It was a bit interesting, given the fact that the family was gathering at Larchmere in the next few days to mark the tenth anniversary of Charlotte McQueen's passing. Well, she would take her father's good mood as a positive sign. He had been widowed for ten years. There was no point in prolonged and unnecessary mourning.
If only she could convince herself of that. Frank, her husband, had been gone for a little over two years now, but the fact, the shock, of his loss still seemed so fresh.
Tilda put her travel bags in her room, the one she had always shared with Frank, and did what she always did upon arriving at Larchmere. She went for a stroll around the house and grounds, noting the familiar and the new, and remembering.
Tilda McQueen O'Connell was built like her mother, Charlotte. She was tall-five feet, nine inches when she wasn't slouching, which she lately had a tendency to do-and thin. Also like her mother, and like her older brother, Adam, her hair was dark brown and her eyes hazel or green, depending on the light and what color blouse she was wearing. She wore her hair in a short, stylish cut that softened her longish face. She used very little makeup and her taste in jewelry was simple and classic. Most of it had come from Frank, including the little emerald studs that made her eyes look very, very green.
That day she was wearing a cream-colored linen blouse she had gotten on sale at Marshalls years ago, and olive-colored chinos that were at least six years old. Tilda couldn't remember the last time she had shopped anywhere but at discount stores and outlets. It wasn't that she was overly penny-pinching or seriously in lack of funds. It was just that she saw no reason to pay full price when there was an option not to. For that matter, she also could hardly remember the last time she had shopped just for fun. Retail therapy had lost its appeal about the time of Frank's diagnosis.
Poor Frank. He had never understood why Tilda had stopped wearing skirts a few years back. If you had long, slim legs, he would say, why would you want to cover them? Tilda had no good answer to that. But wearing only pants eliminated one little daily decision, so expediency had won out over vanity. Maybe it was an age thing. Tilda was forty-seven-some would say "only" forty-seven-but sometimes she felt much, much older. Even before Frank had gotten sick she had started to feel-redundant.
Tilda walked down the steps of the front porch and viewed the large, well-kept lawn. The air was warm but fresh. A vibrantly yellow butterfly fluttered past and darted into the stand of tall, graceful, ornamental grasses her mother had loved so much. Tilda breathed deeply. She was happy to be "home." Now, more than ever, Larchmere felt like her refuge, her safe haven. She wished she could spend the entire summer there, and as a high school English teacher she might have been able to but her sister, Hannah, had helped Tilda to get a part-time job as a freelance proofreader at the ad agency where she worked. The summer job would help make ends meet and it would also, maybe more importantly, keep her from feeling too lonely. Frank was gone and the kids, now college-aged, spent more and more time out of the house, as was to be expected. In fact, for the first time ever both Jon and Jane were spending the summer at home in South Portland where each had a job. In past summers they had lived at Larchmere with their mother, grandfather, grandmother, and aunt, waiting tables at local restaurants when they were old enough and spending free time with friends. This summer, Tilda was experiencing her own, unique version of empty nest syndrome.
Tilda walked in the direction of the gazebo. She remembered a particular hot summer night, not long after her wedding, when she and Frank had taken refuge there while a passing thunderstorm drenched and cooled the air. The storm was magnificent. Frank's arms were strong and loving, his kisses warm. She had wished the rain would go on forever.
But rain wasn't always welcome. The summer before, Tilda remembered as she walked on past the gazebo, had been abysmally rainy, the wettest southern Maine had experienced in many years. Farmers had lost entire crops, business owners had suffered, tourists had grumbled, and locals had gone mad-figuratively and literally. But this summer, Tilda thought, at least so far, was truly perfect in comparison. There had been lots of sunny days, a normal amount of rain to nourish the crops and flowers, and a romantic amount of morning fog over the water on more humid days.
Because it was July, Ogunquit and the surrounding areas were decorated with masses of orange day lilies (also called tiger lilies) and vibrant red day lilies. Wild daisies, clover, Queen Anne's lace, and buttercups filled the fields and lined the roadsides. Cattails were wildly growing at the edge of marshes and valerian, with its powerful scent, was invading any empty space it could find a hold.
Nature was certainly prolific, not only in its flora but in its fauna, too. Tilda remembered a spring afternoon, a long time ago, when the entire front lawn of Larchmere had been covered with robins, some busily searching for food, others standing immobile, seeming to stare into space. There had to have been a hundred of them. It was as if someone-the Robin King?-had called a meeting or a convention. Where had they all come from? Why had they gathered that particular afternoon? And why on Larchmere's lawn? It was weird and disturbing, all those feathered creatures, a flock of robins, not seen before or since.
Tilda now approached the enormous pine on which she once had seen perched a great blue heron, a massive blue gray bird swaying in the wind at the very top of the tree. The bird had a cry like a harsh croak, not pleasant to humans, and built its bulky stick nests in trees or bushes. Not far from Larchmere she had once seen a rookery of twenty-three nests. It was an impressive sight. How did birds make such strong, beautiful nests, with no hands and fingers and opposable thumbs? Tilda shook her head. And humans thought they were so special.
Stepping carefully, Tilda made her way into the woods that edged the back of the lawn behind Larchmere. She was about to pay her first visit in years to the fairy house. She wasn't sure why she wanted to see it. For a moment she felt lost, unsure of where the house stood. It was the only fairy house she knew of on this bit of land. On Mackworth Island and Monhegan Island and at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Booth Bay there were colonies of fairy houses, magical places that compelled you to speak in a hush and watch carefully for signs of fairy dust.
The first fairy house Tilda had ever seen was on the grounds of her aunt's friends Kit Ryan and Carrie Boyd, just over the town line of Cape Neddick. She had been a child, maybe about six or seven, and had been immediately enchanted. She had totally believed that fairies-who were, of course, real-made their homes in the little fantastical constructions of twigs and moss and stones.
When Jane was about five, Tilda had helped her to build her own fairy house with twigs and moss and interesting little rocks and shells they had collected on the beach. Each evening, when Jane had gone to bed, Frank would sneak out and leave little plastic fairies, tinier plastic animals, and even notes from the fairies, written in green ink, on miniscule pieces of paper, in and around the house for Jane to find in the morning. When was it that Jane had finally stopped believing that fairies, the kind in her storybooks, the kind with tiny translucent wings and curly toed booties, weren't real? Tilda thought it had been around the time that puberty reared its ugly head and life lost a certain sort of magic and became all too prosaic.
Larchmere's fairy house had been neglected since Frank got too ill to maintain it. Why he had continued to care for it after Jane had lost interest was anyone's guess. Tilda thought that maybe it was his way of holding on to his little girl. But maybe she was wrong. She had never asked him why he still cared about the fairy house. She wished that she had.
There it was, or, what remained of it. She looked down at the house in ruins. The roof, a large piece of bark, was on the ground, in pieces. A curious animal had long since carried off the last little plastic figurine. The bright white shells were now only broken, dirty bits. Tilda felt ineffably sad. She turned and walked quickly back to the open and sunny front lawn.
The fairy house was gone. Frank was gone, too, though thoughts of her husband were never far from Tilda's mind. Frank O'Connell had been the physical opposite of his wife, only about five feet, eight inches and always struggling with an extra ten or fifteen pounds. He had been an economics major in college and had gone on to become the small business specialist at Portland's main branch of a large bank. It was a job he loved, helping people with a dream and a passion get started and eventually achieve results.
At work Frank had liked to dress nattily in classic cut suits and vibrant ties and shiny Oxford style shoes, but on the weekends, and whenever he and Tilda and the kids were in Ogunquit, he had liked to wear knee-length cargo shorts, big T-shirts, and Boston Red Sox baseball caps, of which he had a large collection. Tilda routinely begged him to retire the rattier hats but Frank always refused. A hat was serviceable until it came out of the wash in two pieces. That was pretty much the only issue about which Frank was stubborn. He was a sweetheart of a guy, easygoing, everyone who met him agreed. He was genuine and fun and quite simply, likeable. In fact, Tilda thought, there was nothing wrong with her husband, except for the fact that he was dead.
Tilda blinked hard, as if to will away the dark thoughts. And then she heard the crunch of tires on gravel. Her sister Hannah's car, a Subaru Outback much like her own, was just pulling into the long driveway. Good. She was glad for a distraction as the melancholy she had been holding at bay all day was threatening to settle like a sticky, black lump in her chest, something that might choke her.
Tilda walked back up to the front porch of the big old house to await Hannah's arrival.
"I finally persuaded her with some sweet talk and a little treat."
"Why can't her owner handle her?" Tilda asked Susan.
Susan rolled her eyes. "Her owner has issues and let's just leave it at that."
"That bird rules the roost," Hannah added. "Polly really should have a trainer."
Tilda laughed. "Polly the parrot?"
"The owner also isn't very creative."
Hannah McQueen and Susan Sirico had been married for almost three years. Frank had been too sick to attend their wedding in Winchester, Massachusetts. Tilda, Hannah's witness, had worked hard to muster the joy she knew her sister deserved, but with her own spouse dying she had not been very successful. Hannah had even offered to postpone the wedding, at great financial loss, but Tilda wouldn't allow the too generous offer. Her sister had waited long enough for the right to legally wed. Nothing should stand in the way of her big day. Frank had agreed and had written a warm letter of congratulations for Tilda to give to the brides.
The entire McQueen family had attended the service and reception, with the exception of Frank, of course, and of Adam, who arrived after the service was over, claiming he had been held up at the office. At the reception he downed several cocktails in rapid speed and then took off, again claiming work as an excuse. His wife at the time, Sarah, had just rolled her eyes behind his back, but Susan had been visibly angry. She saw Adam's behavior as disrespectful of her union with Hannah. But Hannah had put a lighter spin on things, reluctant, Tilda thought, to admit the possibility of her brother's being as unpleasant and selfish a person as he in fact was.
"Did we miss lunch?" Hannah asked now. She opened the door to the fridge and peered inside.
Tilda shrugged. "I think everyone is on her own."
Hannah emerged from the fridge with a pound of sliced turkey, a pound of sliced Swiss cheese, and a grin.
Physically, Hannah, now forty-four, was clearly her father's daughter. Her hair was a deep, burnished red, just like his had been before it had gone white. She was about five foot six inches tall and had an average build. Her eyes were a blue green, not the intense blue of her father's, but large and pretty. But where their familial relation really showed was in their mannerisms. Both consistently crossed their legs to the right. Both tapped the tip of their noses with a forefinger when thinking hard. And both liked to eat scrambled eggs with a spoon. Their similarities had been a source of some amusement for Tilda and Craig when they were all growing up, and a source of unexplained annoyance to Charlotte. Adam had never paid much attention to the peculiarities of his family members.
"Here you go." Hannah passed a sandwich to Susan, who eagerly set to her lunch.
Susan was from an Italian-American family who had lived in Falmouth, Maine, for generations. She had dark brown hair and eyes and, in Tilda's opinion, the most enviable skin she had ever seen, even toned and with a natural blush on her cheeks. Susan was a fund-raiser for a family advocacy group in downtown Portland, a job that required a lot of energy and people skills, both of which she had in abundance. While friendly, she brooked no bad behavior. Often the first to laugh at a good joke, she could also be intensely thoughtful. And she was very protective of those she loved, Hannah most of all.
Hannah was a production manager at the Portland branch of a large Boston-based advertising firm. Together she and Susan lived in Portland's West End in a condo that comprised the top floor of an old, restored Victorian home. That meant they had no outdoor space for planting or barbequing, but otherwise their home was exactly what they wanted it to be. They had plenty of access to the great outdoors at Larchmere, only a forty-five-minute drive away.
Hannah put the rest of the turkey and cheese back in the fridge, just as the sound of tires on gravel could be heard. "That's Dad's car."
"He was out playing golf with Teddy," Tilda said.
"Ouch." Susan smiled. "Why does he torture himself like that?"
A few minutes later Bill joined his daughters and Susan in the kitchen. Bill wasn't a very demonstrative man but when it came to Hannah, he could never resist a show of affection. He hugged her warmly.
"How did you do?" Hannah asked, with a grin.
Bill shrugged. "I lost, of course. And no, I'm not telling anyone what I shot."
Bill McQueen was seventy-three years old, a retired Boston businessman. His hair was still thick, though now white, and his eyes were still clear and intensely, piercingly blue. Amazingly his eyesight was still near perfect. The only help he needed he got from the ten-dollar reading glasses he had bought at the pharmacy in town. Bill was just about six feet tall. His taste in clothes was classic, verging on preppy, though Tilda suspected her mother had decided for Bill long ago what he would and would not wear. Tilda doubted her father had bought any articles of clothing since her mother's passing, except maybe socks and underwear. And that dorky hat he liked so much.
Tilda heard the front door open and a moment later her aunt, Ruth McQueen, was in the kitchen. "Greetings all," she said, putting her white, pebbled leather handbag on the table. (Ruth owned approximately one hundred bags of every description.) "I've been to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and am simply parched. Anyone care to join me in a cocktail?"
"Yes, please," Bill said. "Losing always makes me thirsty for gin."
Ruth laughed. "So that's why you play golf!" Like her older brother-she was sixty-four-Ruth was a natural redhead, but unlike Bill, she maintained her original deep, burnished shade professionally. She was smallish, about five feet three inches, and slim and strong. She dressed, to use her own old-fashioned expression, "smartly," but always with a bit of drama. Though physically unimposing, Ruth exuded strength of character and a definite individuality. Some people, she knew, found her too outspoken and off-putting. Others thought her eccentric. No one could ignore her. Tilda and Hannah had always been a bit in awe of their aunt.
"So what's new and exciting in your lives, girls?" Ruth asked.
Tilda said, "Nothing."
Hannah said, "Not much."
Susan said, "I've got this very interesting new case. Of course, for the sake of the client's privacy I can't give you details but ..."
Excerpted from The Family Beach House by Holly Chamberlin Copyright © 2010 by Elise Smith. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
A friend recommended this book to me for a Summer Read, and I am thankful to her for this recommendation. I know these areas of Maine and appreciated that how the writing pulled me into the scenes. I can relate to the characters. This is a great book to recommend to friends and family. I also think this would be a great book for a book group.
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Posted September 26, 2014
I had a rare weekend all to myself this summer. Husband and boys went fishing. So...it was just me, the cat, coffee and this book. Wonderful, wonderful read. Reminded me of my childhood at times. To cherish those simple pleasures despite of what life may throw at you. Beautifully written.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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I finished this book but only while skipping page after page trying to get the point. Most of it was the woman who had lost her husband (can't even remember her name), going back in time about her married life. This really could have been a good read but all of the characters were so weak. I just didn't enjoy it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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