The Bradford sisters are famous in Rockport, Massachusetts: for their beauty, their singing voices, their legendary ancestors, and their elegant mother, Sarah, who has run the historic Folly Cove Inn alone ever since her husband disappeared.
The two youngest sisters, Anne and Elly, fled Folly Cove as soon as they could to pursue their dreams and escape the Bradford name, while Laura stayed and created a seemingly picture perfect life. After a series of bad decisions, Anne has no choice but to come home and face her critical mother and eldest sister, reluctantly followed by Elly, another Bradford woman who’s hiding something.
As the three sisters plan a grand celebration for their mother’s birthday, they struggle to maintain the illusions about their lives that they’ve so carefully crafted. But when painful old wounds reopen and startling family secrets are revealed, they soon discover that even the seemingly unbreakable bonds of sisterhood can be tested...
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Anne shivered as the taxi's red taillights winked down the gravel drive. Her feet refused to move. The baby, motionless in her arms, seemed stunned by the sudden cold of a New England night.
Now that she was here, she wanted nothing more than to escape again.
Everything looked the same as it had when she'd last visited two years ago. Her father's great-grandparents had built the Folly Cove Inn as a grand resort for wealthy Bostonians, erecting it on a rocky point above a small, horseshoe-shaped beach. The inn had fifty-two rooms, with a wraparound porch between its turreted towers.
Anne couldn't see the water from where she stood, but she smelled the Atlantic's sharp brine. How odd that this was the same ocean she'd seen below the deck of her house in Puerto Rico only yesterday.
To banish the mental images of Colin in their bed and of Luquillo Beach, with its soft white sand and turquoise water, she pictured the opposite side of the inn: a broad porch with a pale blue ceiling and a row of white rocking chairs. Sitting on that porch as a child used to make her feel as though she were gazing straight across the ocean to Europe.
Finally she was too cold to stand outside any longer. She slid Lucy into the backpack and pulled the blanket up around her. Now the baby was barely visible. Anne was rewarded with a drooling smile.
Anne grinned back and kissed her daughter's warm cheek. She hoped Laura wouldn't be here. She couldn't handle the idea of facing her eldest sister. Not tonight. Maybe not ever again.
A bellhop in a navy blazer and red plaid tie hurried outside to help her as she reached the front door, dragging her suitcases and the car seat behind her. "Sorry to keep you waiting, ma'am," he said. "Big wedding party tonight-all hands on deck." He was a young guy with jug ears and acne scars. Not anyone she recognized, thank God. His name tag read tommy.
"No worries," Anne said.
She tipped him for helping her carry the luggage into the reception area and was about to approach the front desk when her mother rounded the corner. Sarah was deep in conversation with Betty, who had managed the housekeeping staff forever.
Tonight her mother was dressed in tan slacks and a black wool blazer. The outfit was accented by an antique silver brooch set with rubies. Sarah had inherited the Bradford family jewels and was never shy about wearing them.
Anne crossed her arms over the stains on her sweatshirt. She deliberately didn't look down at her feet, still in sandals. She couldn't remember the last time she'd had a pedicure. There wasn't much point when you spent hours a day on a surfboard.
Betty was leaving now, taking notes on a clipboard. She either hadn't noticed Anne or hadn't recognized her. No surprise-the last time they'd seen each other, Anne was wearing a cocktail gown.
The DJ in the ballroom was playing a Van Morrison song, "Have I Told You Lately." Anne remembered dancing with Colin to this song in a San Juan hotel and had to swallow hard to speak. "Hey, Mom. I'm here."
Her mother frowned and checked her watch. "You're later than I'd thought. Was the flight delayed?" Her tone was polite yet cool; she might have been addressing a guest. Sarah hated public displays of emotion.
Anne instinctively adopted the same measured tone. "No. But I had to wait nearly an hour for the train at North Station."
Her mother bristled. "I'm sorry you were forced to rely on public transportation. I was sure you'd ask a friend to give you a ride."
Anne thought of Hattie, her best friend from high school. She would have been more confident about the whole trip if Hattie had been able to greet her at the airport. Unfortunately, Hattie had left Boston yesterday for her sister's wedding in Colorado.
She had never been an anxious traveler, but Anne was terrified during the flight from Puerto Rico. Since becoming a mother, she'd felt as if every dangerous thing in the world was aimed straight at her baby: speeding cars, stinging insects, viruses, terrorists, the sun's toxic rays. As they'd landed at Logan International Airport, she'd been convinced the plane would continue taxiing into the glittering sea.
"Hattie's out of town this week," Anne said.
"Laura couldn't pick you up?"
"I didn't ask Laura."
Her mother sighed. "I hope you two have gotten over whatever you were fighting about."
"We're fine," Anne lied. "Laura's so busy. I didn't want to bother her."
"I see. Well, I would have driven to Boston myself, but you know what it's like around here on weekends. It would have been much more convenient if you'd arrived during the week."
This was one reason why Anne had moved away in the first place: the inn always came first. There had never been much room in Sarah's life for anything else. Certainly not after her father disappeared.
"Mom, it's fine. I made it here."
"And I couldn't be more delighted!" Sarah cocked her head, openly appraising Anne.
This, too, was a reminder: their mother had been appraising Anne and her sisters every day of their lives, making sure they were well turned out and behaving. She liked to remind them that they were Folly Cove's "ambassadors" and that the Bradford family name could be traced back to William Bradford, who'd helped found the original Plymouth Colony of Massachusetts.
"Is that a tattoo?" her mother asked now. Her tone was conversational, but her eyes were narrowed.
Anne touched the outline of the small bird, a Puerto Rican nightjar, on her wrist, then pulled down her sleeve to cover it. "Yes."
"I see. Well, that will certainly give people in the nursing home something to gossip about when you're my age."
Anne was about to say that her tattoo wasn't any of her mother's business, but then the doors to the grand ballroom swung open behind Sarah. Three couples emerged. The men wore tuxes and were arguing about the Patriots. Behind them, the women walked with heads held high on slim necks, their bridesmaids' dresses frothing around their legs like sugary peach concoctions.
Her mother waited until the couples disappeared up the wide carpeted staircase with its oak railing, then said, "Your skin looks divine, Anne. Puerto Rico's climate must agree with you. And I'm sure we can schedule a haircut for you next week. David often has openings on Tuesdays. Would that suit your schedule?"
"Sure. Whatever." Anne's shoulders were beginning to ache with the weight of the backpack and the tension of wondering when her mother would spot what was in it.
Sarah smiled. "Well, let's not stand here. You must be exhausted. I'm sure you'll want to bathe and change before dinner. I'll ask Tommy to help carry your things to my apartment. How does that sound?"
"Good." Sarah finally crossed the wide, deep green ocean of the Oriental carpet separating them in the reception area to kiss Anne's cheek. Her eyes widened when she saw the backpack over Anne's shoulder. "Goodness. Is that a baby in there?"
Anne had to laugh. "Yes."
Sarah pressed her lips into a thin line, then said, "Is it yours?"
"She. And yes. Her name is Lucy."
"Well, at least you didn't choose one of those awful modern names. Where is Lucy's father?" Her mother's gaze flicked about the reception area, as if Anne might have hidden a man behind one of the brocade Victorian sofas.
"New York City."
"Will he be joining you?"
"No. Things didn't work out. That's one reason I'm here."
Sarah let her eyes drop to Anne's left ring finger. "And you never married him, I assume."
"No." Anne waited for the inevitable "I told you so." She didn't have to wait long.
"I see." Sarah sighed heavily. "So this is what came of your grand adventure in the tropics: a baby and no husband. My God. How could you let yourself get into this mess?" Her mother clasped her hands and rocked slightly on her heels. "Turn around."
"You heard me. Turn around! I want to see my new granddaughter."
Anne obeyed. She waited while her mother fiddled with the baby blanket and examined Lucy, who must either be asleep or too terrified to make any noise. Most children were terrified of Sarah. Anne had seen her mother silence an entire birthday party of elementary school children with a look.
Finally Sarah instructed Anne to face her again and said, "She isn't a bad-looking baby despite the red hair. Still, we should present this carefully. I don't want any unnecessary talk." She tapped a scarlet fingernail against her pursed mouth.
Anne's scalp prickled. "It's the twenty-first century, Mom! Nobody's going to care if I had a baby on my own. And how is this any worse than Grandfather gambling away the family fortune? Or Dad being a drunk and then disappearing? You tell people those things often enough."
"Sex is different." Sarah lowered her voice as an older woman in khakis and a blue Fair Isle sweater entered the reception area carrying an ice bucket. "Wait here, please, Anne."
Sarah walked over to the woman, greeted her warmly, and pointed her toward the ice dispenser in the hallway, all while answering questions about a whale-watching tour and the best place to buy lobster. Her mother confided in the other woman as if they'd grown up together. Once Sarah spoke to a guest, that guest felt completely at home.
Too bad Sarah's own daughters had never been granted that same magical guest treatment. Anne's knees and back still ached whenever she thought about how many bathrooms she'd scrubbed and how many loads of linens she'd washed in the industrial machines downstairs.
Her mother returned and said, "I know this may be difficult for you to understand, given your age and lifestyle, Anne, but sex is always a scandal in New England. This is not the Caribbean. And people expect an inn like Folly Cove to uphold certain family values."
Her mother's hair, always a sign of her mood, was starting to unravel from the coil piled on her head, long white strands rising like cobwebs. "We'll have to tell people you're newly separated from the baby's father and it's too painful for you to talk about it," she went on. "We'll imply that you're getting divorced."
"I most certainly am not." Her mother's voice was patient but determined. "If you're staying here at the inn, that's exactly what we're going to say. And my apartment isn't suitable for a child, I'm afraid."
Beyond the double doors, the band began playing Pink's "Raise Your Glass" in the ballroom, and the crowd sang along. Anne nearly had to shout above the music. "Why not?"
"I don't have room for a baby. Or the patience. As you know."
Anne remembered how, as a child, she'd once kicked her mother in the shins out of frustration. She felt exactly the same way now. "Lucy won't be any trouble. She can't even crawl yet."
"How long are you planning to stay?"
"A couple of months? Just until I find a job and get back on my feet. It would be nice to spend Christmas together, right?"
"Naturally, I would be delighted if you stayed through the holidays." Her mother brightened. "I have the perfect solution. I'll put you in the east wing. I have a room available on the third floor. That way none of the guests will hear the baby fussing and be disturbed."
Anne's face felt hot; she knew a flush was probably spreading across her neck, face, and torso. As a redhead, she'd never been able to hide her emotions. Her skin might as well have been a neon sign.
"Mom, I can't do all those stairs multiple times a day with the baby! Please. Let me stay with you." Anne hated having to beg.
To make matters worse, she could feel Lucy wiggling in the backpack. She was probably hungry; at four months, Lucy was accustomed to nursing every few hours.
Anne imagined breastfeeding right here in the inn's reception area. She could plop down on the couch and whip up her shirt. What would her mother do if she flashed her boobs at the guests? A bubble of hysterical laughter escaped before Anne could swallow it.
"I'm glad you find this situation so amusing," Sarah said. "I'm afraid I don't see the humor in the fact that you, with all of your fine education and opportunities, are reduced to being a single mother, tattooed and without a job, like half the teenage girls in Gloucester-girls without your advantages." Sarah turned away and gestured to Tommy to retrieve Anne's luggage. "Room 307," she said, then turned back to Anne. "Come with me and I'll show you to your room."
I was an idiot, thinking I could come here, Anne thought as she followed her mother down the hall to the back staircase, still carrying Lucy and the diaper bag.
Anne kept her eyes on the floor as they passed the couples returning to the grand ballroom, avoiding the sight of these women in their peach dresses and pearls. Women who were doing exactly what was expected of them instead of what she had done, which was to burn every bridge behind her.
Reading Group Guide
1. Why do you think Laura believed her husband, Jake, when he told her Anne tried to seduce him? What would you do if your husband said that about your own sister?
2. The sisters all have different relationships with their mother, Sarah, yet each of them feels like she’s a disappointment to her. Do you think Sarah loved her daughters equally? Is it even possible to love your children equally?
3. Laura stayed with Jake for many years despite the fact that he didn’t seem to desire her physically. What kept her in the marriage? Should she have left him sooner?
4. Were you disappointed by the resolution with Neil, or do you think it was better that the novel ended this way?
5. Two of the sisters, Anne and Elly, have lived away from home, while the third sister, Laura, stayed. How did leaving Folly Cove change Anne and Elly? Do you think it’s important to live away from the place where you grew up? Why or why not?
6. Why do you think Flossie stayed on at Folly Cove despite the ten‑ sions between her and Sarah? How would you describe the relationship between these two women?
7. If you had to predict what these characters will be doing five years after the novel ends, what would you say?