In Lighthouse Bay, a village on the coast of Queensland, Australia, three women who have lost a loved one are forced to make new lives for themselves, alone, while facing up to their pasts.
In 1901, Isabella Winterbourne's grief for her baby boy, who died three years earlier, is deemed excessive and unseemly by her husband and in-laws. Over a century later, in 2011, Libby Slater can't publicly mourn her lover, Mark Winterbourne, because they had to keep their relationship hidden; he was married. The third protagonist is Libby's estranged younger sister, Juliet. Although she has moved on in some ways from an old loss, although there's been no man in her life for many years.
Isabella's husband and Libby's lover are related, one being the great-great-uncle of the other, but otherwise there's no family connection between the women... although their stories are tied to the same picturesque seaside setting and through the resolution of a mystery dating from Isabella's time.
Isabella and her domineering husband Arthur, of the Winterbourne family of jewelers, are traveling from England to Australia to accompany a ceremonial mace gifted by Queen Victoria to the Australian Parliament in celebration of the country's federation When their barque strikes a reef and breaks apart, leaving Isabella the only survivor, she rows herself ashore, gives herself a new identity, and plans to sell the gems from the mace to earn enough money to leave and find her sister in New York.
In alternating sections, Libby returns home to Lighthouse Bay after a 20-year absence, hoping to continue her life as a graphic designer and reconcile with her sister, Juliet. The owner of a local B&B, Juliet has never forgiven Libby for something tragic that happened years ago. To Lighthouse Bay's modern inhabitants, the lost treasure from the 1901 wreck of the Aurora has become a local legend.
Dual-period novels are all the rage now, and many of their authors generate suspense by moving swiftly between the two timelines; no sooner do we adjust to one character's story than we're jostled out of it and placed into the other era. This isn't the case with Lighthouse Bay, and it makes for a smooth, engrossing journey. Freeman gives her readers time to become intimately acquainted with Isabella's and Libby's experiences, letting us get familiar with each woman's personality and motivations before gently gliding, several chapters later, over to the other tale.
All three women make for sympathetic protagonists, although all have also made mistakes. Libby in particular has much to atone for: not just the rift with Juliet, but her past role as the "other woman."
Society life in each period is deftly sketched: the social strictures at the turn of the 20th century, which guide proper behavior and discourage cross-class liaisons; as well as the strength of community in the 21st century, as residents fight against the threat of resort developers who could destroy their peaceful small-town atmosphere.
There are several romantic subplots, although I won't spoil things by revealing the details. Although tinted with melancholy, Lighthouse Bay is a satisfying and ultimately uplifting novel about the complexities of human relationships, artistic creativity, and how pain from the past must be acknowledged and addressed before it can be overcome.
Lighthouse Bay was published by Touchstone in April at $16, or $18.99 in Canada (trade pb, 416pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.