From the New York Times bestselling author of The Bookshop at Water’s End, here is a lush, heart-wrenching novel about the power of memory, the meaning of family, and learning to forgive.
Ten years ago, Lena Donohue experienced a wedding-day betrayal so painful that she fled the small town of Watersend, South Carolina, and reinvented herself in New York City. Though now a freelance travel writer, the one place she rarely goes is home—until she learns of her dad’s failing health.
Returning to Watersend means seeing the sister she has avoided for a decade and the brother who runs the family’s Irish pub and has borne the burden of his sisters’ rift. While Alzheimer’s slowly steals their father’s memories, the siblings rush to preserve his life in stories and in photographs. As his secret past brings Lena’s own childhood into focus, it sends her on a journey to discover the true meaning of home.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Patti Callahan Henry is a New York Times bestselling author whose novels include The Bookshop at Water’s End, The Idea of Love, The Stories We Tell, and Driftwood Summer. As Patti Callahan, she’s the author of the USA Today bestseller Becoming Mrs. Lewis. Short-listed for the Townsend Prize for Fiction, and nominated multiple times for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Book Award for Fiction, Patti is a frequent speaker at luncheons, book clubs, and women’s groups.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Patti Callahan Henry
Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that.
Virginia Woolf, Orlando
The wedding for Colleen Donohue, Lena to her family and friends, and Walter Littleton was ready to begin one spring afternoon. The Lowcountry of South Carolina preened, the temperature in the seventies without a hint of the summer humidity that would arrive soon, the river shimmering with glints of sunlight captured in its crests, the blooms of the azaleas and gardenias competing for attention. The air was soft as cashmere.
For this very day much dreaming and planning had gone on behind the scenes, starting with the gown. Lena’s cream-colored lace dress, originally worn by Aunt Rosalind forty years before, had been remade for Lena’s taller body. Her ethereal and younger sister, Hallie, as the maid of honor, was adorned in a pale pink sheath dress with a circle of baby gardenias on her head, her straight blond hair falling to her shoulders. Lena’s loose curls had been tamed for the day and pinned high under a pearl crown and a veil edged with tiny Swarovski crystals.
It was a small town, Watersend, South Carolina, nestled where the May River met the wide saltwater bay. The wedding was being held in the 1820s stone Episcopal church, full to overflowing. Although they weren’t church members, everyone in town did favors for the Donohues, even the priest—for Mr. Gavin Donohue, to be specific. Lena watched from the bride’s room window as outside the guests arrived in pairs and clusters. The ancient oak trees spread their gnarled limbs, offering shady protection, and sunlight filtering through the Spanish moss turning it to gossamer.
“A mass migration,” Lena said to her mother, Elizabeth, who was fastening the last of the satin buttons at the back of Lena’s dress. “I bet there’s not one person left in town. If a stranger came through, it would look like a ghost town.”
Elizabeth laughed, a sound as tiny as she was. “Well, you know your dad. He can’t help but invite everyone. If someone walks into the pub, he’s all a-chatter about his oldest daughter getting married to that endearing Littleton fella, and then he’s off inviting them. I gave up counting long ago. The Oyster Shack just decided to cook enough Lowcountry Boil to feed the entire town. It’s a safe bet. “ She gazed off. “Still not sure how they’re all going to fit under that tent in our backyard, but . . .”
“It’s wonderful there are so many,” Lena said. “It’s nice that so many people will witness this promise. It makes it feel more true, more of a sacred commitment. Even if they are mostly here for Dad.”
“They are here for you, too, honey. You and your dad: two peas; one pod.”
Lena studied her mother’s face as she’d done all her remembered life, looking for a sign what was missing, a gap that she’d always felt, wanting more and finding less. Was this closeness with her dad a source of pain for her mother? Or was Elizabeth merely stating the truth without subtext?
Elizabeth Donohue wore a blue lace dress that fell like waves around her slim body. She was impeccable in her appearance and mannerisms—her Virginia aristocratic heritage surrounding her like a perpetual shine. Lena had never seen her mother unkempt. Even her cotton nightgowns were ironed and coordinated with her robes. Meanwhile, Lena had trouble finding matching shoes.
Everything to do with the wedding planning had been annoying to Lena and she’d only endured it for her mother’s sake—trying to please a woman who’d never had a real wedding. They all knew the story—how her parents had agreed that the money they’d spend on a wedding would go to opening the pub. The justice of the peace in Watersend had married them, Mother in the white dress she’d worn to her high school prom, and Dad in a black suit with a cobalt-blue tie.
Lena hadn’t wanted all the nuptial hoopla; she’d merely wanted to say her vows in a simple dress, throw a huge party at her dad’s pub, the Lark, where she’d spent most of her life at his side, and then hurry on with their adventuresome life. She and Walter had so much planned—children, creative work, travel and family gatherings—and sitting through prim parties and opening gifts with dainty oohs and aahs had not been part of her dream.
Thank God for Hallie, who had not only helped Lena maintain her patience through months of cutesy-pie smiling, but also knew enough to organize the wedding events down to the last toast said and confetti tossed. Lena, her head perpetually in the clouds, as their mother was always reminding her, wouldn’t have made it a week into the spreadsheets and budget calculations. Hallie, on the other hand, dove into the deepest end of this wedding planning pool and arranged every small and beautiful detail. And now it was time; Lena had paid her dues in composure and her wedding day was here.
Hallie and Lena had spent the morning lazing in their childhood tree house, staring over the May River just as they’d done almost every Saturday of their early lives, and secretly during many midnight hours when their parents had believed they were asleep. When Mother had finally called them inside to have their hair and makeup done for the wedding, Lena had grasped Hallie’s hands and declared, “Nothing will change between us. I am here for you and you for me—the Donohue girls forever even if my last name changes.”
Hallie had cried, true-blue tears that wet her cheeks and rolled into the soft corners of her mouth. “It will change—you’ll be married while I can’t keep a guy around for more than six months.”
“Do not cry! You’ll find your soul mate, too. I know it.” Lena had pulled her sister close. “And look at us. Some things will change, but not us, not you and me.” And Lena had meant it; nothing, not even marriage, could separate her from her beloved sister.
“You won’t be able to meet me at midnight to stare at the stars, watch for the shooting one,” Hallie said quietly. “Not like before.”
“We’ll find new ways.”
It was times like this when Lena would think how much younger Hallie really seemed—not immature as much as naïve. She’d never dated anyone seriously for more than a few months, and her shy insecurity kept her from the wider world, even attending college at the local satellite of the University of South Carolina. Hallie was living at home and finding jobs as a wedding organizer and party planner. Why did Hallie ever need to go anywhere else? she asked when pushed on the subject. She had everything she wanted right there. So, yes, Lena’s marriage was putting a bit of a strain on Hallie’s life cocoon.
Outside the bridal room door, the organ reverberated with “How Great Thou Art,” one of three songs that the organist, a last-minute replacement, knew. “That’s the third time she’s played that song,” Lena said to her mother. She leaned close to the mirror and once again checked her rosy lipstick. She didn’t often wear makeup and her face looked dollish and plastic so she wiped some off just as the door burst open and her three bridesmaids entered bearing a contraband champagne bottle held high.
“You ready?” Kerry asked, her face especially bright and cheerful with too much blush and eye shadow. Count on her to sneak in the alcohol.
It was Sara who popped the cork and poured the bubbly into those plastic flutes that Lena so hated. They always cracked when she drank from them.
“Let’s save it for after,” Margy said. “Can’t have a drunk bride.”
Kerry made a dismissive sound. “One small sip for everyone!” She held her thumb and forefinger a hairbreadth apart and laughed.
Margy handed a flute with one splash of bubbly to Lena. “Let’s cheer to a long and happy life with your great love.”
“To stellar sex and forever together,” Sara said.
“Sara,” Lena said, and pointed to her mother with a laugh.
Sara pretended to whisper. “Oh, no. Doesn’t your mom know about sex?”
Mother took the champagne bottle from Margy and poured herself a small amount into a real glass from the side table. No plastic for Elizabeth. “Oh, that,” she said with a wink. “Our children arrived in pink and blue packages.”
“Okay, enough,” Margy said. “Let’s cheer.”
“Not without my little sister,” Lena said. “Where’s Hallie?”
No one answered, each glancing around.
“Mother, do you know where she is?” Lena asked, taking the champagne bottle and walking toward the doorway.
“Darling, I’ve been in here with you the entire time.” Mother stepped forward and attempted to take the bottle from Lena’s hand. “You’re going to spill that on your dress. You know how you are.”
Yes, Lena did know how she was: klutzy. And how lovely of her mother to remind her at that moment.
“I’ll get her.” Kerry headed for the door, in such a rush she almost knocked over the plastic cross on the banquet.
“No.” Lena shook her head. “Let me.” Lena wanted to find her best friend, the other half of her heart. She opened the door to an empty hallway, breathing in the aroma of mildew and incense. The ancient stone walls offered the impression of being in a castle far away, a place she’d never been. She took a few steps out and glanced left and right. “Hallie?”
Only “How Great Thou Art” answered her call until Mrs. Martin, Lena’s second grade teacher, stepped out from the ladies’ room and gasped. “Oh, my. Lena! You are so beautiful. Who knew you’d turn into such a lovely young woman?”
Lena laughed and smiled. “Thank you.” One of the vagaries of living in a town you’d never left was the danger that people’s memories of you at your most awkward age might be revived at any moment. Lena and Walter had gone round and round about where to live and had decided to stay in Watersend. He was new in town and she didn’t want to abandon her family—a tight-knit group that both nourished and made each other nutty. His family had disbanded—his word—when he was nine years old and his parents had divorced. An only child, he was shuffled back and forth, here and there, without ever feeling at home anywhere. Until, he said, until he met the Donohue family. This was what he’d been looking for, this kind of deep connection and family life, right alongside the kind of love that swept him away.
It wasn’t just love of family that made them stay in Watersend—logic was also part of their decision. Walter was a builder who could work anywhere and what with the Donohue family connections he could thrive in town while also finding work in both Savannah thirty minutes away and Charleston two hours away. Lena’s job as a writer for the local newspaper would be enough for her until she started getting bigger assignments with more important news sources, which she had faith would happen soon.
Walter. His name made Lena smile, the quiver of rightness in her chest quickening. That he’d chosen her was still a surprise. Yes, they were getting married “too quickly,” having known each other just eight months—six before he knelt on one knee and proposed, and two since they’d begun planning the wedding, which was easy for Mother and Hallie to plan as just another backyard party. But love is love and this was love. It doesn’t take long to plan a party in a place like Watersend, where the town is waiting at the ready for something just like this to happen, like the night sky waiting for the stars to appear.
Walter’s distant—both in geography and in emotional support—parents argued about which of them would attend, so that, in the end, neither of them were present. His groomsmen equaled Lena’s bridesmaids in number, and all of them he considered “brothers.” Lena measured them with unease as she’d only met them the day before the wedding and found them both loud and annoying with their private jokes and vague assertions of Walter’s partying past life. When Hallie had asked, “Are you sure?” Lena had told her, “You can’t dictate love. You can’t tell it when and when not to appear. You have to grab it when it comes—such a rare and wonderful gift.”
From the moment Lena had met Walter Littleton from Atlanta, Georgia, she’d been adrift in feelings she’d never felt before—most strongly, the desire to share her life with someone else, with this particular someone else.
Lena was twenty-five years old, the age she’d always told her little brother, Shane, and Hallie she would be when she married. When she and Walter had burst through the door of the pub to announce their engagement that January night, Shane had laughed and said, “Right on time.”
Now at the church, Lena’s ballet slippers—she’d refused high heels, convinced that she would fall in them halfway down the aisle—were smooth along the stone hallway as she looked for her sister.
The vestibule appeared ahead and Lena backed away. Legend and lore told that seeing Walter would be bad luck. She wanted to fully experience that moment—the one when she walked down the aisle and Walter eyed her all aglow with the veil wafting behind. Lena wasn’t traditional by any means, but some wedding mythology was ingrained in a girl’s mind, so permanently and elementally etched into the psyche that even she couldn’t resist.
She turned swiftly and lifted her skirts to walk back down the hallway to the bridal room. The organist had shifted to her second song—“Amazing Grace.” The pew dwellers would be getting antsy. It was five past the hour.
Lena pulled open two wooden doors to spy two empty rooms before she opened a third one where two lovebirds were entangled in an embrace so tight that Lena smiled at love so evident on her wedding day. They were kissing, the woman’s face lifted to the man’s. His hand was in her hair, pulling her close. His other hand raised the skirt of her dress so that white silk panties flashed. Lena almost turned away in embarrassment for intruding on such an intimate moment, but something in the scene didn’t allow denial. The man’s lips traveled down the woman’s neck, and the flower crown Lena had created with her sister the night before fell to the floor.
A tiny woman with blond hair in a pink dress and a man in a tuxedo.
He was Walter.
She was Hallie.
Lena’s belly turned to fire, ignited by the truth of what she was seeing. There Lena stood, a walking cliché: the sister betrayed on her wedding day. If it weren’t so stunning it would be laughable. It was the annihilation of everything Lena Donohue believed in: true love, her family’s protection, and her sister’s fidelity. It was death, so why was she still alive?
The champagne bottle shattered on the stone floor, a bombshell of splintered glass and fractured reality as she dropped it in shocked pain. All that had seemed real was illusion; all solid ground fell away; all love dissolved into treachery. Only one pure thought exploded through her mind—This is the end of everything good.
The past is never just the past.
David Whyte, Consolations
Colleen stood at the window with the disconnected phone still in her hand.
Her brother had hung up on her, but not before telling her to text her flight info a.s.a.p. For tomorrow, he’d said.
“Oh, Dad.” Her voice broke as she spoke into the silent apartment.
Gavin Donohue was the kindest man Colleen had ever known. He was the barometer of all things good and true; he was the most stable and loving presence in her life, and she missed him every day. If her brother was right—and he’d used the solemn phrase and incantation, so he must believe he was—then of course she must go home tomorrow. If what he’d said was true, she didn’t have the luxury of time, to amble home whenever she felt strong enough to face Hallie and the memories.
Memories. They were being destroyed in her dad’s brain. Yet memories were why Colleen was in New York, the reason she’d left her family and the life she once thought she’d never abandon.
Then she did what she always did when her mind acted like a runaway train, like a rubber ball bouncing in a closed room—she grabbed a pad of paper and a pen from her Lucite desk and began to write a neat list. First, finish the article. Second, make plane reservations. Third, do not Google Alzheimer’s.
Nothing good, ever, came from over-Googling.
The article was shit. Colleen knew it and yet she hit the send button anyway. Mexican Fun in the Sun. Even the title was the worst. But she didn’t care. Her heart hadn’t settled for even a minute since Shane had called that morning.
It’s all in the details—this was a universal law in the writing world, as unbending as a physics equation. Colleen had kept the focus on trivialities—the scattered sparkle of morning sun on the river; the gravel road with weeds forcing their way up in the ruts and grooves; the thickness of hotel room towels; the floral rug with vines that wriggled through the pattern like snakes. Well-chosen details added together made a vivid picture, and she gathered the minutiae and decided which ones to share, which ones would send a reader to plan a trip to the location she’d just vacated.
But the overarching narrative of her own story? Ah, she’d avoided that for years. It was easier to notice the smallest things in her forest than to rise above the treetops and gaze down to see the not-quite-green relationships and withering spaces.
And now? Her sight was fixed firmly on home and on all the emotional uncertainty a visit there would entail.
Colleen had learned to be happy in the years since the heartbreak that had caused her to run from Watersend. She made a good living and had enough friends to stay as busy as she pleased. Sometimes she sensed a glass wall stood between her and her pals, as she was never able to tell the full truth of why she chose New York, why she never went home. Avoiding all mention of family and home, there seemed to always be a piece missing in her relationships, as if by leaving out the subject of her family she’d left the bottle of wine at home when she arrived at a dinner party. She cherished her work and her apartment and someday—maybe someday—she would again love a man. Until then, she went on as many adventures as possible and talked to her brother and father at least once a week. To her sister she didn’t speak at all.
Back at her computer, she typed “LGA airport to SAV airport” in the search bar and watched the flights scroll, one by one, then startled as her apartment buzzer squealed. She walked to the intercom and raised the speaker. “Hello?”
“Colleen, you can’t ignore me forever. Let me in, love.”
Philippe, the sort-of-boyfriend she’d been avoiding since her return from Mexico a week before. This was a relationship she needed to end, a discussion she needed to have about how she didn’t feel the same as he did. He’d been so much fun, taking her to haunts and hidden places in the city she’d known nothing about, introducing her to an Italian social scene that kept her up until the early morning. She’d had a blast, but now he wanted more. More than she was willing to give. But his friendship, his ability to be fully present and listen, well, she did enjoy that part.
“Darling,” she said, using his language. “Not now.”
“I have croissants,” he said. “Warm ones from Pastanos.”
This man knew his way to her heart, or at least her bed. She pushed the buzzer and then opened her studio door to watch him stride up the stairs, but it was her neighbor she saw first: Julia, who wore multiply colored spandex and her bleached hair high in a ponytail, revealing the dark roots.
“Hello, Colleen,” Julia said in her singsong voice as she pulled keys out of her purse. “How are you today? Not traveling right now?”
Here was the neighbor who watched Colleen’s every move but had no idea what went on with her own teenage son. “Not right now.” Colleen averted her gaze to see Philippe climbing the stairs with the telltale brown paper bag in his hand.
“Another friend?” Julia followed Colleen’s gaze to the tall man in dark jeans and black T-shirt, his smile as wide as his face.
“Your son,” Colleen said, “skipped school today.” She greeted Philippe with a much warmer kiss than she would have if Julia hadn’t been watching.
Julia slammed shut her apartment door and in the wide hallway where a tenant had painted a bright blue mural of the Brooklyn Bridge, Philippe laughed. “Will you ever give her a break?”
“Not until she gives me one.” She took the bag from his outstretched hand and together they entered her apartment. She grabbed the croissant and took a bite before they reached the kitchen counter.
“Colleen.” Philippe grabbed a Travel and Leisure magazine from a leather bag slung across his body. “You did it!” He held it up and pointed at her name on the front cover. “Your name in big bold letters right here.” He dropped the satchel onto a stool and the magazine onto the kitchen counter.
Colleen grinned and even had the good sense to blush a bit. Yes, finally her name had found its way onto the cover of one of the finest travel magazines. Top Ten Tips for Traveling by Expert Colleen Donohue. There it was, right next to the sailboat tilted against the wind in Barbados, directly under Island Escapes.
Philippe flipped open to the article and pointed at her professional photo—Colleen leaning against a pillar in some faraway and nameless place with an azure sea in the background. Her hair backlit and lifted lightly by what appeared to be a breeze but had actually been a fan, appeared like a halo. She wore a sarong and sandals—“forced casual,” she called it. “And your photo.” He held up his hand for a high five. “Well done, my love.”
“Thanks, I’m really proud of that piece.”
“Well, the advice tips don’t matter so much to me. It’s the stories you wrote to go with them that make it interesting.” He kissed her cheek. “I felt like I knew you better with each one.”
Colleen ran her fingers along the edge of the counter. “How about the stories where I wrote about the travel mistakes I made?” she asked. “Was it too much?”
“Nope. Made it even better. I loved it.”
“Me, too.” Colleen nibbled on the end of her croissant. “If only my piece about Mexico had flowed as easily.”
Philippe reached her side and pulled her close against his long, lean body. “You can ditch me if you must, but you have to tell me what’s going on. It’s like another woman replaced the one who left for Mexico. Did you pick up a virus there that changed your heart?”
He was endearing and funny. Why couldn’t she fall in love with the endearing and funny ones? Why did they bore her? Why did she instead want to call Daren, the guy who had constantly stood her up while they’d dated? She smiled at Philippe. “No, I’ve just been so buried in work, and I told you before I left—I’m not sure we’re right together.”
“You don’t look so well.” He squinted. “Have you been crying?”
My God, she had been. She touched the edges of her eyes. How had she not realized? “It’s my dad.”
“You have a dad?”
“What the hell does that mean?” She moved away, putting space between them. But she knew what he meant. She never talked about her family. “Yes, I have a dad. The best dad in the world.”
“And what’s wrong?”
“I’m going home to find out. My brother won’t tell me much until I get there other than Dad might have Alzheimer’s. So it’s either the worst trick in the world to bring me home or . . .”
“No one would bullshit about that, would they?”
“Not Shane.” She shook her head, crumbs falling from the croissant in her hand.
“I’m sorry, Colleen. What can I do to help?”
“And your mom?”
“Mother to me. And sadly, I lost her two years ago.”
“You know what?” He paused and tilted his head in curiosity. “I know nothing about your family. Tell me about them.” He moved closer to her, lowering his voice with the tender request.
She shrugged, wiping at the edges of her eyes to remove any further evidence of emotion. “It’s not a complicated family as far as families go.”
He laughed and with his usual dramatic flair threw his arms in the air. “All families are complicated. Two or twenty, they are all complex.” He ran his hands through his messy curls. “So you can’t fool me, Colleen Donohue.”
She smiled before she knew she had. “True. I just meant that there aren’t that many of us. Mother was an only child and she’s passed. I never knew her parents; gone before I was born, because Mother was a late-in-life baby. Dad only has one sister, and she lives in Virginia. I don’t have any cousins at all. I know this sounds crazy to someone from a family like yours—all those sisters and brothers and aunts and uncles; it’s like you could have your own country.”
“What about your dad’s parents? Your grandparents?”
“They were amazing, at least what I remember of them. They died when I was in elementary school. They used to come visit a couple times a year, but we never went to see them.”
“That’s weird.” Philippe took a croissant from the bag and held it absently in his hands. “My favorite times were visiting my grandparents.”
Colleen shrugged. “They loved coming to see us.” She took the croissant from Philippe. “Now. Can we stop talking about this?”
He lowered his voice. “Let me be here for you.” He came closer and moved to place his arms around her.
She allowed his hug with the shield of the croissant before her. “That’s so sweet, Philippe. But I told you from the beginning I have—”
“No interest in a serious, long-term relationship.” He stepped back. “I know.”
“But you thought you could change my mind.” Colleen had been here before, with men who thought she was playing games when she was telling the truth. “Listen. You’re an amazing guy. If I had even the slightest inkling to settle down, it would be with someone like you. Maybe even you.”
He took the pastry from her, placed it on the counter and kissed her, long and slow and luxurious. She allowed him to draw her closer to the unmade bed at the far end of the room, but stopped a few steps from the rumpled sheets. “Philippe, not now. You know I adore you, but I have to book my flight and figure out what’s going on with my family. I’m a bit of a mess.”
His dark hair fell over one eye and he brushed it away, his gaze set on her. “You’re always a mess. It’s one of my favorite things about you.” He kissed her again.
“That’s what my mother always said.”
“You’re a beautiful mess then,” Philippe said as sunlight fell through the large windows forming a spotlight on the hardwood floor between them.
“Philippe, I have to go home tomorrow.”
“And I didn’t even know you had one.”
Colleen looked to him and she laughed despite herself. “I don’t have one, really. Home. That’s a misnomer at best.”
In a swift motion, Philippe picked up the magazine from the counter, flipped to her article and read out loud. “ʻNumber ten: When you return home, take with you everything you’ve seen and learned.’”
Colleen stared at Philippe, aware of the obvious: she didn’t know what or where home was anymore.
“What happened,” he asked, “that you can write about going home and yet never do it?”
Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.
Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
She felt the air punched from her chest as Philippe held up that article, showing her words that had meant one thing when she’d written them and now meant something altogether new. She flopped onto the couch and he sat next to her, pulling her close. He didn’t ask, but he didn’t have to, because Colleen started to talk, to flatly tell the story she’d never spoken out loud, not once in ten years, the story of her wedding day.
“Holy shit.” Philippe’s voice held tenderness and compassion despite the profanity. “That really happened?”
“It really did.” Colleen was dry-eyed. She’d once assumed that if she ever poured out the story, she would fall apart, but maybe the narrative had dried out; maybe it’d lost its power.
“And then,” Colleen said, “she married him.”
“Damn.” Philippe shook his head. “No wonder you don’t like to get too close to anyone.” He grinned, but Colleen didn’t find the offhand joke funny. Not one bit. “Sorry, bad timing. So then what happened?”
Colleen found herself telling the rest of what she knew, what she’d heard from her brother, her parents, or worse, what had been in the texts, e-mails and voice mails from Hallie. Never, not once, had Colleen answered any of them. “I left. No, more accurately, I ran. I grabbed my already packed suitcase and drove away. Hallie is the one who sauntered into the bridal room and told everyone the wedding was off.”
“Did she tell everyone why?” Philippe asked in a low voice.
“I have no idea. Then Walter announced in the packed church that I had left the scene—no explanation why, just that I had run.” Colleen shook her head and felt oddly disconnected to the story, as if she were telling Philippe something she’d read in the newsfeed on her computer. “So then my parents had everyone over to our house anyway, because the food and drink had already been prepared under a big white tent in our backyard. The tent Hallie picked out with daisy chains, just like we’d made as kids, falling from the posts.” Colleen shrugged. “Not that I blame Mother and Dad—you can’t waste good food and liquor, I guess. It was a party without a bride and groom. At least Hallie and Walter had the good sense to stay away, or so my brother told me.”
“Then they married?”
“Yes. The betrayal goes on and on. They tried to do it quietly—going to the justice of the peace in Watersend six months later—but nothing is quiet in a small town. First comes cheating, then comes marriage, then comes two babies in a baby carriage.”
“I’m so sorry, love. What about your parents? I mean, weren’t they livid with your sister? It seems like she broke up the family.”
“If they were angry, and I’m sure they were at some point or on some level, they never told me. But then again, I didn’t speak to anyone at home for a long, long while. When I finally did, they were just glad to hear from me and it wasn’t a subject I would talk about. I’ve made it clear that I never, and I mean never, want to hear about Hallie or Walter or talk about them . . . so I’m not exactly sure what their feelings are about it.”
“No wonder you don’t want to go home.”
“That’s the thing, though.” Colleen stood up, her heart racing with this first telling of the sordid tale, the first time she’d spoken it out loud to another person. “I do want to go home. I just don’t want to see her, or Walter, or their offspring. But I do want to go home. I’ve been there a few times over the years, but there’s always been this complicated scheduling nightmare of who comes and goes so I can avoid . . .”
Philippe stood and pulled her against him, brushed her hair away from her face. “Although I know the answer to this question, I’ll ask anyway—would you like me to go with you?”
He nodded, his mouth in a tight line. “You know, it’s amazing that you can tell that tale without crying.”
“It is, isn’t it?” Colleen said as she touched his cheek. “Listen, you’re so sweet for coming by with my favorite croissant and listening. I’ve never told it before and your kindness allowed me to let it out. Thank you. I promise I’ll call when I return, but I can’t focus on anything else but getting to South Carolina right now.” Colleen kissed him and walked him to the door. “I have to book a flight now.”
“You’re always on the next plane out. Is that how it’s always going to be?”
“I don’t know.” She propped the door open with her foot.
He shook his head. “Someday, Colleen Donohue, I believe you’re going to have to feel something.” And with that he was gone, his shadow retreating down the dark stairwell, his back straight and his hand waving over his shoulder.
Feel something? Damn, she’d felt plenty, she wanted to tell him. Plenty enough to last a lifetime. Feeling things was overrated at best. She gently closed the door and went straight back to the computer, chose a flight, entered her credit card number and slumped into the couch to text her brother with the information.
“Whoa,” she exhaled into her empty apartment. She’d told the story; she’d said it out loud; and now, like the aftershocks of an earthquake, Colleen felt the fracture lines inside her chest. There was an ache and need for her family that flowed over her with a panicked sense of lost time.
When you return home, she’d written in the article, take with you everything you’ve seen and learned.
But how could she do that?
This was a question most women would ask their mothers, but two years ago they’d lost a youthful fifty-eight-year-old Elizabeth Donohue to a silent killer—a brain aneurism that had sent her crashing to the family’s dock while she was dragging a crab trap out of the water in preparation for a lawn party that evening. Dad had been cleaning the picnic table. Teamwork, they always said, was an important ingredient in a marriage.
As the Irish said, two shorten the road.
Dad had raced to his wife, but it had been too late. It had been too late the millisecond it happened. Elizabeth was gone, the rope still in her hand, a smile on her face and guests on their way for fresh crab.
Shane had called Colleen that time, also. His voice shattered in grief, he’d told her, “I already bought you a plane ticket home.”
Colleen had been late, arriving only two hours before the funeral; a late season snowstorm had socked in the Northeast and canceled most flights. When she landed, there was no one to pick her up so she’d called a cab and told the driver to take her directly to the church where the funeral service was being held, the same one where she’d once expected to be married. She’d texted Shane. I’ll meet you at St. Paul’s. Keep Hallie away from me.
“Lena,” her brother had phoned to say in a whisper, Hallie obviously near. “You can’t avoid her. It’s our mother’s funeral.”
“I can. I will. I’m here for Mother, and for Dad. And of course for you. But not her. Not Hallie.”
“She wants to talk to you.”
“No.” Colleen had closed her eyes so tightly that bright confetti burst in the darkness.
Somehow she’d managed to avoid her sister for a full two days, during the house visits, funeral and burial. Of course she’d glimpsed Hallie across the room with Walter, who kept her welded to his side, protective or possessive, who could say?
During this time, remembered arguments between Colleen and her mother had come to mind, one after the other in unrelenting succession, causing Colleen to feel both sick and nostalgic. Regret, that was what death brought in its disorienting wake. Why hadn’t she been closer to her mother? Why hadn’t her mother been closer to her? Why had they argued about everything from how she fixed her curly hair to her decision to become a writer? Why did they argue more than Hallie and Mother? Death, she realized, also brought a litany of why why why, like a whining child.
Colleen had finally stopped the never-ending reel of questions. That was part of life’s abrupt ending—there would never be answers. Nothing would be resolved.
There had been loving moments together, of course there had been. When Colleen’s mother had rubbed her back as she coughed with the flu, when she’d kissed Colleen good night and brushed her hair off her forehead—little moments that added up to a quiet conviction that there was love present and available. Yet there was also always the quiet conviction that Mother loved the others better, that Hallie was the favorite Donohue daughter. Dad would adamantly deny this accusation and then collect Colleen in his arms and spin her around, saying, “Who wouldn’t love everything you are?”
Colleen still didn’t like to think about the day of the funeral. The deep sorrow pressing on her, the knowledge that whatever she felt she was missing from her mother she would never know or have, the weight of who they all used to be and would never be again: a complete family.
This trip home would have to be different. If the siblings were going to help their dad, they couldn’t ignore each other. But she damn sure wasn’t going to run to Watersend with open arms and magnanimous forgiveness. Cautiously polite would be Colleen’s goal—all for Dad.
Memories had originally kept Colleen away, and now that her dad might be losing his, she would return.
Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.
Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
When Colleen finally slept that night, she fell into fractured dreams of childhood: pleasant, filmy dreams of when it had been the five of them, secure in their family and fast in the absolute certainty of their love. Their family: Dad, Mother, Colleen, Hallie and Shane on the banks of the May River.
When she half woke before the alarm sounded, a memory of the languid Sundays they’d spent together lingered in the luminous space between sleep and wakefulness.
Dad had always taught her that the natural world revealed the face of God; that spirit lived in his creation. This was all Colleen knew about religion. While her friends went to church on Sundays in their frilly sundresses and patent leather shoes, Dad ensured that this family kept the Sabbath in the landscape surrounding Watersend. Gavin infused their family rituals with a sense of the divine. “As the Irish say, what fills the eye fills the heart.” Even now, his voice resonated in Colleen’s mind.
Each Sunday they would embark on an outdoor excursion: a trip on the johnboat through the secret alleyways of marsh and sea islands, their faces raised to the wind; a dockside lesson on casting the shrimp net; or maybe a hike through the nearby nature preserve, booklet in hand, to find and name the majestic birds that fluttered and flocked there. There were treasure hunts in the parks, kayaking in the estuaries, hikes to hidden ponds.
When Colleen had first relocated to New York, she’d awoken on Sundays with such a profound sense of loss that she felt as sick as if she had the flu. When she finally realized what was ailing her, she’d started walking through Prospect Park on Sunday mornings to capture at least some of what she’d lost. But it hadn’t been the same. Not one little bit.
The Lowcountry was a seductress, a holy and righteous one, but one nonetheless. She was irrevocably beautiful in her ever-changing seasons and personalities. She kept her secrets well hidden in the lush and meandering tidal river creeks that only a very few people knew their way around. Her dad was one of them—the waterways were as familiar to him as his own body: the river water his blood and the land his bones. It had been the same for Colleen.
Leaving her childhood home and family had crushed the last fragile bits of her already broken heart. Hallie had always been the first person Colleen turned to with everything in their lives. The cruel part about this heartbreak, the shocking part, was that the first person Colleen wanted to talk to about the betrayal was the betrayer.
Finally one Sunday, she’d wandered into Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral and taken a seat in the back row. As the priest offered communion to the congregants, she had felt left out of every kind of family there was. It was time, she decided when the tears were spent, to create a life of her own. That was what everyone had to do eventually—make their own life. And so she’d moved forward, making friends, succeeding at her job, finding lovers and becoming involved with her little community, leaving the past behind.
The Savannah Airport was as charming as ever. White rocking chairs in clusters, faux pillars meant to suggest a house of the Old South, and photographs of the marsh, oyster beds and river docks—all images that still evoked the word “home” in Colleen’s mind, despite having worked so damn hard to erase it. What she wanted home to be instead? She had no idea. A first-class seat in an airplane? A studio apartment in an old church? A park in New York City? A hotel room in another country?
Dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, her hair pulled into a ponytail, she tossed her backpack over her shoulder and dragged her small rolling suitcase across the concourse, the wheels popping and squeaking until she saw Shane sitting in a rocking chair reading the paper as if he were waiting on their back porch for her to finish throwing the shrimp net. “Hello, bro,” she called out as she reached him.
He glanced up and smiled. Her little brother—the most adorable of the three of them, with his black curls and green eyes, an upturned grin that didn’t show his teeth, and the small silver scar on his top lip from when he’d taken Colleen’s dare to kiss a crab.
“Well, hello, big sis.” He stood and hugged her tightly and then stepped back. “No matter how many times you come home I’m a little shocked to see how different you look.”
“Different?” She cocked her head and smiled. “Better, you mean?”
He kissed her cheek. “I mean without the wild hair and the sundresses and sunburned nose.”
“Well, I’m here. So let’s get started on your big idea, whatever it is. And you must tell me every single thing going on with Dad. I can’t bear to think of him failing. I’ve hardly slept.”
Shane took the rolling bag from Colleen and headed for baggage claim. “This is it.” Colleen placed her hand on his arm. “I don’t have another bag.”
“This is it? Taking your own advice to travel light?”
“Yup.” She grinned at his reference to her article.
“Colleen.” Shane rubbed the stubble on his face. “You are going to be here for a while. This isn’t a quick in-and-out. Not this time. I know you can work anywhere—no excuses.”
“I know, Shane.” She slipped her arm through his.
Shane raised his eyebrows in question. He wasn’t used to her being so agreeable.
Colleen felt the cold fingers of panic tickle beneath her throat. Her worst fear escaped in a quiet voice. “Is he . . . dying or something and you’re not telling me?”
Once in Shane’s banged-up navy blue Jeep, Colleen settled into the seat and rolled down the passenger-side window, letting in a blast of hot, humid air. “Holy hell,” she said. “And I thought New York was miserable in August. Now I remember why I’ve never come back in summertime.”
“Sorry Dad’s crisis didn’t coordinate with your schedule.”
Colleen studied her brother’s profile. “Are you angry?”
“No,” he said quietly as he maneuvered the Jeep out of the parking deck. “I’m sorry. It’s just scary and I’ve needed my big sister.”
“I’m here,” Colleen said and reached to pat his shoulder. “I’m here. Now tell me everything.”
While Shane drove the thirty minutes to Watersend, through miles of green marshland set against gray-blue estuaries, and under Spanish moss dangling from live oaks, Colleen tried not to think about the day she’d driven away from this beloved place. She turned away from the scenery to her brother, who spoke.
“It began a few months ago. You know I’ve been living above the pub for a while now, so sometimes I don’t go to the old house for weeks. One afternoon, a rare free one, I decided to take out our old johnboat. At the house I found three weeks’ worth of unopened mail and a burner on the stove that had been left on for God knows how long. After that, things started to make sense—now he forgets names, repeats questions, wears the same outfit for days in a row, and more.”
“Oh, Shane.” Colleen set her hand against her heart. “What if that burner had caught something . . .”
“Don’t even play the what-if game right now, Colleen. It’s too terrible.” Shane turned left to drive over the Savannah bridge, a sailboat of a structure winging its way over the moving waters of the Savannah River, dividing Georgia from South Carolina. Below on the right were the spires of the grand dame city and to the left the smoke-chugging port of Savannah. Colleen held her breath as they crossed—an old childhood habit from when Shane had told her that ghosts could get them if they took a breath while crossing a river.
“Welcome home,” he said as they passed the wooden sign declaring they’d entered South Carolina.
“Go on about Dad,” she said. “I want to know everything before we see him.”
“Looking back, Lena, I believe this dementia has been happening for a long while, a slow decline, and Mother covered for him. You know how they were—so tightly knit together. I think she made sure we didn’t know, or maybe she herself didn’t want to know. Either way, she concealed it.”
“That makes sense. She would protect him from anything.” Colleen leaned back on the seat and watched the landscape fly by—the wooden stands selling fresh shrimp, trees crowding the road alongside ramshackle cottages on the two-lane highway. “We will figure this out together.”
He took a breath and then paused before asking, “Did you know Hallie moved from Savannah? They’re only ten minutes away now, at the edge of town.”
“Yep. Dad told me.”
They were silent for a while as the mere mention of her name created open spaces, timid pauses. At a red light a few miles from town, Shane turned to Colleen. “Hallie is meeting us at the pub,” he said. “Dad’s having lunch with some old buddies and we’ll catch up with him at home later.”
“Hallie? Can’t that wait?” Colleen wanted to find her feet first, to take a breath and inhale the Lowcountry air, to hug her dad before she had to face her sister.
“Lena.” It was a one-word admonishment.
“I go by Colleen now. You know that, Shane.”
“Not with me you don’t.”
Colleen let the comment rest and inhaled the briny scent of the marsh as she began to take it all in, as if she would be required to write about the spruce and pine proudly shooting toward the sky, about the summer green grasses and the hand-painted signs announcing fresh shrimp, peaches and strawberries. She held her hand out the window and let it roll with the wind, dipping and rising. She and Hallie had done that as children—perched on opposite sides of the backseat and put their hands and arms out the windows to pretend the car was a plane.
“You’ll cut off your hand when a truck passes by,” Shane said with the grin that all the girls had fallen for since he was a young child.
They laughed, easing the tension that had filtered between them. The line was what he’d told them when they were young—always so logical, their little brother.
“Lena,” he said as she pulled her arm back into the car, “it’s happening fast.”
“What do you mean?”
“Even though Mother might have hid it for a while, he’s now gone too far, too fast.”
“I’ve had to take his car keys.” Shane’s voice cracked on the last word. “He thinks the car is in the shop. But twice he became lost and once he hit a light pole. It was time. I also discovered that the bank was about to seize the pub. Dad hadn’t paid the mortgage in almost a year. A year!”
“I’ve caught up—it’s all fixable. But there are other things, too. There were late notices. Packages unopened.”
“Didn’t you realize anything weird about him before this? It doesn’t make sense.”
“I did, but here’s the thing—I just thought he was being his eccentric self. You know, changing subjects midstream, never finishing a sentence, making inappropriate jokes to the customers, losing his keys. But then the bigger things started happening—forgetting what day it was. Asking where you were, like you were upstairs.”
“My God, this breaks my heart.” Colleen swallowed past sudden tears. Her sweet dad had been looking for her in the next room when she was eight hundred miles away.
“I finally took him to the doctor, trying to convince myself maybe he was just getting sick or had low iron or something, because the truth is that a lot of the time he seems okay. But then something will happen, like he’ll put his cell phone in the dishwasher at the pub or pour a beer into a whiskey glass. Nothing big, all things that can be explained by distraction. I mean, I do that shit, too.”
“I found my earrings in the silverware drawer the other day,” Colleen said. “I took them off when I was unloading the dishwasher and—”
“I know,” Shane said. “That’s what I told myself, too. But the tests came back. Early-onset Alzheimer’s.”
“Have you told him?”
By then Shane had arrived at the pub, and he maneuvered the Jeep in the alleyway to the sign that announced, Owner Parking. “Of course I’ve told him.” Shane shifted into park. “But of course he doesn’t believe me and he thinks he’s fine and doctors are quacks.”
He placed his hand on Colleen’s shoulder. “I have an appointment with a specialist at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Jacksonville. I need you to take him.”
She smiled. “Ah, that’s why I’m here.”
“Partly, yes. I thought if I told you on the phone you might not come.”
She shook her head. “Of course I’d come. I want to take him. I want to help.”
He faced her before opening the car door. “There’s more to it. I need you to chip in. We decided to get this test—it’s called a PET amyloid plaque-imaging scan. A mouthful, right? Anyway, it’s one of the only tests that will give a mostly definitive diagnosis and insurance doesn’t cover it. It’s still considered experimental, but . . .”
“Why isn’t it covered?”
“Because even if it shows the plaque, even if it’s there, there’s nothing to be done about it. There aren’t any medicines or treatments . . .”
“From what little I understand, that’s what Alzheimer’s is essentially—plaque and tangles in your brain cells. It’s more complicated than that, of course, but that’s above my pay grade.”
“Oh, God. Yes, of course I’ll help pay. Yes.” Tears gathered and Colleen pressed her palms to her eyes. “This is so scary.”
Shane nodded and she knew he didn’t trust his voice, what it would sound like with fear and grief mingled. Together they climbed out of the car and Colleen stood in the parking lot of the Lark as waves of emotion—joy, melancholy, regret and something that felt vaguely like peace—swept over her until she remembered her sister. “When does Hallie arrive?” she asked quietly.
“She’s probably inside waiting,” Shane said. “Let’s go, sis.”
“Give me a minute.”
“I’ve given you years.”
Reading Group Guide
Readers Guide for
The Favorite Daughter
Questions for Discussion
1. In the prologue, we are at a wedding that has gone horribly wrong. Have you been a part of or heard about a wedding that fell apart at the last minute? Should Colleen have disappeared like she did or stayed to face the situation? Should she have replied to her sister and family or ignored them?
2. After a terrible betrayal, the sisters Colleen and Hallie haven’t spoken in ten years. Has there been someone in your life who betrayed you? How did you handle it? How can people reconcile after a betrayal?
3. When Lena changes her life, she changes her name to Colleen. Are names powerful enough to change a life? Have you ever changed your name? Has anyone you know? Can that change signify a different life?
4. Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease, and in this novel it both brings the family together and also tears them apart. Have you had an experience with dementia or Alzheimer’s? How has it affected you and/or your family and loved ones?
5. When Colleen returns to Watersend from New York City, the memories come flooding back. Have you had an experience where you return to a place and the memories also return? Can memories be hidden in geography? Does landscape hold memories? How did the landscape influence Colleen’s transformation?
6. The pub, the Lark, plays a prominent role in the novel. It is a community gathering place as well as a family’s heritage. How do you think the pub brought the Donohue family together? The community? Do you have a place like this in your life? Do you think places like this are important to a town or city?
7. Colleen’s job as a travel writer keeps her from putting down roots. She realizes later that it also allows her to avoid intimate connections. Are there things you do to keep your heart safe from hurt? Can we keep our hearts safe—and should we? Did staying away end up helping or hurting Colleen?
8. Colleen unearths a secret about her parents, and this discovery opens her eyes to the past in a new way. What had once been confusing now seems clear. Have you discovered something about your family and seen the past through new eyes? Did this change your choices or your life?
9. Colleen connects with the nieces she had never known and this softens her heart. Can children bring a family closer together? Is it the innocence of children or their reminder that family matters? Have children brought you closer to your family in any way?
10. At the end of the novel, Colleen travels to Ireland to see the land her father loved. Why do you think it was important for Colleen to visit? Is it important to know your roots? To understand where you came from and why?
11. Shane, Colleen and Hallie’s brother, stays above the fray of the sisters’ embittered feud while also keeping the family together by running the pub and taking care of their father. Do siblings often find different roles to play in a family? What are yours?
12. The bonds we share with our siblings is an integral part of this novel—the good and the not-so-good. How do these relationships shape each character? How have your sibling relationships shaped your character?
13. Each sister believes the other to be the “favorite.” Do you think this often happens in families? Has it happened in yours? How does that perception affect a child? An adult? You?
14. Hallie attempts to reconcile numerous times, but Colleen won’t speak to her or answer her mail until their father falls ill. Can tragedy bring families together? Has it ever brought yours together and how?
15. Colleen has spent the last ten years trying to decide what defines “home.” In the end, she is finally able to do so. How would you define “home,” and what does it mean to you? Can you have more than one home? Is it a place or is it the people?