While “The Seaside Library” is about the lengths to which friends will go to protect and support each other, it’s not basically about a library. The setting is Mariners Island, a fictional island author Brenda Novak imagines off the coast of New England where all three main characters grew up. Ivy, Ariana, and Cam were best friends, and when a tragedy occurred one summer, the teenagers lied to protect Cam. That lie grew and took on a life of its own in the next two decades.
The action begins twenty years after the lie, when Ariana returns to the island from her home in New York. She has quit her job as editor at a publishing house and plans to spend the summer on the island. Her two friends find that strange as she has not been back to the island for years. But they are happy to see her, even as Ivy wonders if the recent discovery of the body of a slain child might be the reason for her return.
Twenty years previously, we find out, a twelve-year-old girl disappeared while visiting the island with her family. She was presumed to be murdered. Her sister Jewel said that there was a noise in their rental home at 10:30 at night. It’s thought that’s when the girl was abducted. The parents were off the island and Jewel was babysitting. But as we learn, there is much more to the story.
Novak shares the information sparingly as we read about the three friends. The omniscient narrative allows us glimpses into the thoughts of each of the trio. Ivy questions her decision to remain on the island, foregoing a college education to run the library her wealthy ancestors started while she lives in the mansion they built. Cam has built a very successful architectural business and loves drawing and bringing to life the visions of his clients. He is in an unfortunate marriage that was the result of an accidental pregnancy, and Ariana’s return to the island ignites some jealousy. Novak paints Cam’s wife as an unlikable woman with few, if any, redeeming qualities.
Because of the number of main characters, it’s difficult to feel especially close to any of them. We do feel their uncertainty and doubt as each woman, Ivy and Ariana, wonders if lying for Cam was the right thing to do. Like anyone who reads the news, they worry that if they hadn’t provided Cam with an alibi for the night of the disappearance, he would have been the only suspect, and the abduction would have been blamed on him. He might have spent his life in prison for a crime they know in their hearts he couldn’t commit.
Both girls, now women, are sure that Cam couldn’t have done anything that heinous. But was he telling the truth when he claimed that after he was with them that night he went straight home? At least one of the women views that claim with skepticism as Cam hated being at his house alone at night. His parents were extremely neglectful, and he was left alone in the family home more often than not. Many nights, he slept on the floor of Ivy’s bedroom just so he wouldn’t be alone. Ariana also suffered with a mother who was not very maternal, and Ariana was mostly raised by her grandmother on the island.
As we learn about the characters and the backstory of what happened decades before, Novak keeps carefully keeps events of the past carefully shrouded. We don’t know Cam well enough to believe what the two women do—that he couldn’t have committed the kidnapping. We also know from the beginning of the novel that the abduction ended in murder, because the girl’s body was found buried by the island’s lighthouse.
Novak carefully reveals the details we need in order to understand who was really the perpetrator of the crime. It’s not a huge twist as she leaves clues that point in that direction. The story is more about the three main characters and their relationships than the murder. The mystery is the catalyst that causes those relationships to change and grow. Three can be an awkward number, and Novak proves that true. I do wish that Novak had done more with the island setting. It’s summer on a beautiful, tourist-filled island, yet I didn’t smell the salt-laden breeze or feel the hot sand between my toes. One of the reasons we love reading novels that are set in beautiful locations is to experience the place through sensory descriptions. I was left wanting more, but Novak’s story of the personal relationships and the crime is quite compelling.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.