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Authors: Holly Robinson

Beach Plum Island

BOOK: Beach Plum Island
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Beach Plum Island

“In this absorbing, bighearted novel, Holly Robinson explores sibling bonds, love in middle age, and the intricate dance of a blended family. The painful past is everywhere in
Beach Plum Island
but the present moment shines through.”

—Elizabeth Graver, author of
The End of the Point

Beach Plum Island
, Holly Robinson’s rich details transport you to picturesque New England and right into the core of the conflicted Barrett family. Robinson tugs at your emotions from the viewpoint of the three complex and very different Barrett sisters, through whom the author deftly explores grief, secrets, and shunned family ties. This story reveals the way people become stronger when they are together rather than apart, and proves that it is never too late to become a family.
Beach Plum Island
is a triumphant family saga filled with heart and hope. I couldn’t put it down!”

—Amy Sue Nathan, author of
The Glass Wives

“Holly Robinson is a natural-born storyteller and her tale of three mismatched sisters and the lost brother they search for will keep you turning those pages as she quietly but deftly breaks your heart. I loved every single one of her characters and you will too; here is a novel to savor and share.”

—Yona Zeldis McDonough, author of
Two of a Kind

Written by today’s freshest new talents and selected by New American Library, NAL Accent novels touch on subjects close to a woman’s heart, from friendship to family to finding our place in the world. The Conversation Guides included in each book are intended to enrich the individual reading experience, as well as encourage us to explore these topics together—because books, and life, are meant for sharing.

Visit us online at

“Robinson masterfully paints the portrait of a damaged family in the quake of a tragedy, struggling to put the pieces back together again. Each sister is sensitively drawn, their individual dramas meticulously rendered. This novel is a thoughtful exploration of the fragility, and the tenacity, of the ties that bind.”

—T. Greenwood, author of
Bodies of Water

The Wishing Hill

“One of the deep pleasures of
The Wishing Hill
is Holly Robinson’s keen sense of story. Another is her willingness to give all her characters, young and old, second chances. I loved reading about Juliet and how she and her family invent and reinvent themselves as they struggle to reconcile past and present. Many readers will surely glimpse themselves in this vivid, compassionate novel.”

—Margot Livesey, author of
The Flight of Gemma Hardy

“Who and what makes us who we really are? In Robinson’s luminous novel of buried secrets, she explores how the past can jump-start the future, how motherhood can be more than genetics, and why finding yourself sometimes depends on discovering the truth in others.”

—Caroline Leavitt,
New York Times
bestselling author of
Is This Tomorrow

“A novel that sings: of love for a child, loss and regret for a life, and the quiet triumphs of survival and finding each other again.”

—Susan Straight, National Book Award nominee for
Highwire Moon
and author of
Between Heaven and Here

“A story about love, loss, secrets, and finding out where we’re really supposed to be in our lives. As Juliet navigates the terrain of divorce, pregnancy, and exploring new love, her greatest gift comes from a place she never expected to find it: revisiting her unsettled past. I loved this book.”

—Maddie Dawson, author of
The Stuff That Never Happened


The Wishing Hill





Holly Robinson




NAL Accent

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 375 Hudson Street,

New York, New York 10014

USA | Canada | UK | Ireland | Australia /|New Zealand | India | South Africa | China

A Penguin Random House Company

First published by NAL Accent, an imprint of New American Library,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC

First Printing, April 2014

Copyright © Holly Robinson, 2014

Conversation Guide copyright © Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2014

The author gratefully acknowledges the permission to reprint “Phantom”

copyright © Carla Panciera, 2013.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.



Robinson, Holly, 1955–

Beach Plum island/Holly Robinson.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-1-101-63121-8

1. Family secrets—Fiction. 2. Fathers and daughters—Fiction.

3. Brothers and sisters—Fiction. 4. Domestic fiction. I. Title.

PS3618.O3258B43 2014

813'.6—dc23 2013037398


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.





Title page

Copyright page





















About the Author

Conversation Guide




For my husband, Dan, and for our children, Drew, Blaise, Taylor, Maya, and Aidan.

You are my everything.


And for my mother, who tells better stories than anyone else I know.


Plum Island, a wild and fantastical sand beach, is thrown up by the joint power of winds and waves into the thousand wanton figures of a snow drift.



Black backed gulls stare wall-eyed

    at a place

      where beach plums once crowned dunes,

    part river’s bottom,

part sea’s.

Here, time

    elapses tide by tide, the Atlantic

part Arctic, part appetite. This is what’s left: ice age

water, winds that curl

      ghost dunes until they crest into waves atop which teeter—

dining rooms, a chaise lounge.

So you thought you could stay?

    A barrier island’s function is change;

        the sea—the current’s yeoman, the implacable sculptor—

ferries sand north to south.

Twleve thousand years, you think, is tide enough for art.

    But the moon—part light, part

      master—summons its shore and leaves

the sand pockmarked by filter feeders,

    sets the gulls aloft.

In this world, part wind, part waves, the fanciful

    is hope, phantom-like

the insistence

of your own ornamentations.




walk, first, to clear her head. Then she’d call her sister again. She wasn’t going to give up until she’d convinced Elaine to do the right thing.

Ava Barrett stepped outside her pottery studio and saw that last night’s wind had scoured the beach clean. The June sky was a daydreamer’s blue and a pair of white egrets picked their way along the water’s edge. School had only been out a week and the tourists hadn’t yet descended; the beach was blissfully empty. She headed south, walking fast on the hard, cold-packed sand. It felt good to move after working all morning. Summers, she liked to put in a few hours in her pottery studio before the boys woke up and shattered her concentration.

By the time she returned to the cottage it was noon, the best time of day to call Elaine, who typically spent lunch hours holed up in her Boston office with a salad. At thirty-six, her sister was still single and a workaholic, the sort of woman who texted even on the beach.

Elaine answered on the first ring, as breathless and abrupt as always. “Yes?”

“Please don’t hang up,” Ava said.

“Then don’t tempt me. I’ve already told you three times! I’m not coming to Dad’s service.”

“You don’t have a choice.”

“Of course I have a choice,” Elaine said. “You’ve given me your reasons. I’ve listened to them. And now I’m making my choice.”

The wind had picked up and it was difficult to hear Elaine over the surf; Ava retreated back into the studio. “But it’s the wrong choice. Even if I forgive you for not going, you’ll never forgive yourself.”

“What’s the point?” Elaine said. “Dad didn’t even know who we were at the end, and it’s not even him they’re putting in the ground. Just a box of ashes, most of which probably aren’t his. You know what they say about cremations. Besides, the best thing about Dad dying is that we’re done pretending. We never have to see those people again.”

By “those people,” Ava knew Elaine meant their father’s second wife, Katy, and their half sister, Gigi. “We should both be there. Who else will show up from Dad’s side, if not us? Everyone else in his family is gone. And you know he didn’t have any friends.”

“Gosh, I’m sorry, but whose fault was that? Anyway, I certainly don’t have the time or patience to stand around watching Katy fake-cry.”

“What makes you think she’d be faking?”

“Oh, come on, Ava! You can’t honestly still believe Katy was really in love with Dad. That makes no sense. She’s younger than I am.”

“Since when did love ever make sense?”

“I am not getting into this with you now,” Elaine said, “and I’m certainly not showing up at some trumped-up service.”

“I really think you’ll regret not being there.”

“God! You’re relentless! Why is this so important to you?” Elaine demanded.

“Does it matter why? It’s important to me. Can’t that be enough?” By the brief hesitation on the phone, Ava sensed her sister wavering. She quickly pressed her advantage. “And what will the boys think, if you’re not there? What would I tell Evan and Sam about their aunt skipping their grandfather’s funeral?”

“Goddamn it.” Elaine sighed. “All right.
I’ll be there. Just don’t expect me to wear black.” She hung up.

Ava slid the phone into the pocket of her overalls, sat down at her pottery wheel, and smacked a ball of clay onto the metal head. If only relationships were like clay. Even if you made something out of clay that dried out and shattered into crumbs, you could always, with the right amount of water and heat and wedging, recycle the scraps and re-form the clay into something new.

She braced both elbows on her knees to center the clay on the wheel. She had ten more pitchers to make this morning if she was going to fill the order for that new client in Portsmouth on time.

Ordinarily, she loved making pitchers. Some stood straight, while others curved outward from a tapered waist. She liked to think of her pitchers as women in long, flowing skirts. But now her focus was fractured by thoughts of her father. Every pot collapsed, the cylinders folding in on themselves as she thinned the walls. Her clay bucket filled with scraps.

I want your brother to know the truth.
Those were her father’s cryptic last words before he died.

Katy had left the hospital to pick Gigi up from camp, so Ava was the only one with him at the time. Her father—a big man with a strong jaw, protruding ears, and hands like mitts—had shrunk to doll size, his husk of a body deflated on the hospital bed beneath the white sheet. His death was peaceful. No evident pain, just a fluttering of papery lavender eyelids and then a sigh that went on so long, it was as if her father were exhaling every last atom of his being into the atmosphere as he moved on to mingle with the dust motes and water droplets.

Now Ava was left puzzling over his last words:
I want your brother to know the truth.
She didn’t even
a brother, so how could she tell him anything?

And what was the truth?

•   •   •

Gigi hadn’t meant to say yes. It had just happened.

Justin went to her prep school and lived in Ipswich, two towns over. When she posted that thing on Facebook about her dad dying, he’d texted
what a fn drag

Surprised, she’d texted back to say thanks, and he’d replied,
hey, we’re tying our boat up in Nbt Fri, big ass boat, come see.
he’d sent another text saying his parents were going out for breakfast.
Come early to miss em.

Justin wasn’t hot or anything, with his skinny goose neck and zits. But he’d graduated this spring, and that automatically made him cooler than she was; she’d just finished freshman year. Plus, he had a nice car and was MVP on the varsity baseball team.

So Gigi rode her bike from her house on Newburyport’s High Street down to the docks along the city’s waterfront park and found
The Last Hurrah
. The boat was ginormous. Justin had a tan already and was friendlier than at school, maybe because nobody else was around. “Sucks about your dad,” he said once she’d climbed into the boat.

Her eyes brimmed, but Gigi pretended to admire the brass steering wheel. “Yeah. Totally.”

Justin gave her some kind of iced tea his mom always drank. Then they sat not looking at each other, watching the seagulls wheel around over their heads while they talked about the weirdness of being in a prep school where everybody knew your name and had this idea of you. At least going to college meant you could finally leave all that stuff behind.

“I’m going to reinvent myself,” Justin said.

“As what?” Gigi honestly wanted to know.

“As a guy who makes things happen.”

She had no idea what this meant, but Justin seemed ready to make things happen right now, before his parents returned from their eggs Benedict and Bloody Marys. He took her downstairs into a cabin with a kitchen and a bathroom so narrow she practically had to stand up to pee. When she came out, he kissed her and ran his hands over her breasts, tugging on her nipples before unzipping her jeans. Once he’d yanked her jeans down to her ankles, he stopped to politely ask Gigi “permission to enter,” as if he were a lowly peasant and she were guarding a castle or something.

She was both too flattered and too embarrassed to say no. After all, she wasn’t a virgin. There had been a boy after the winter semiformal, at a party where she had been drinking and made the woozy decision to eliminate virginity from the long, boring list of things she felt anxious about.

“Sure, I guess,” she said.

Justin sat on one of the bench seats, pulled her down on top of him, and raised her shirt, prodding his way inside her at the same time even though her ankles were still trapped in her jeans. At that point, Gigi realized she didn’t want to be here at all, doing this.

She became acutely aware of the dappled shadows of the water reflecting on the round cabin windows, the stink of fuel mixed with fishy air, and the screams of the seagulls outside. More than anything, she wanted Justin to finish his damp heavy breathing. He sounded like her grandmother’s dying cairn terrier. That dog was like ninety-six in people years.

When it was over, they did that A-frame kind of hug and Justin said, “You’re a sweet kid. Have a great summer. Text me if you’re ever in Amherst and want a tour of campus.”

Then she’d ridden off on her bike, pedaling fast to make it to camp before the instructor called her mother to ask where she was.

It took her twenty minutes to ride from Newburyport’s waterfront to the stables. She followed Route 1A, the winding shore road that paralleled Route 1 between Newburyport and Boston, forty miles south of here. She hugged the shoulder now that the commuter cars were zooming by with their hoods and bumpers gleaming in the sun, the drivers already fierce looking as they woke up and began their days, mouths pursed around travel mugs or moving as they talked into headsets, getting work done as they drove, or who knows, maybe fighting already with their lovers, wives, husbands, kids. Their oversized sunglasses made the commuters look like a race of insects, drone bees or maybe worker ants on wheels.

It was hot and humid, too hot to be biking. Gigi felt sick to her stomach, but forced herself to pump hard on the pedals, wondering if the drivers in those cars could tell what she’d done by looking at her. She could still smell boat fuel and fish; she hoped that wouldn’t be what she thought of from now on, if she ever did have sex for real. Sex that mattered.

Gigi went through the rest of the day in a coma. She hated riding camp, where her stupid instructor was always yelling things like “Heels down, back straight, post on the diagonal!” in that nasal voice of hers.

The only decent part about camp was being alone with the horses in the barn. Gigi loved the way the animals flickered their ears in some secret horse Morse code, and how their muzzles felt like velvet, the nostrils coin-sized and damp against her palm as they searched for carrot nubs. The horses sought out her company, snorting when they saw her and hanging their heads over the stalls to nod hello when she called their names.

When she rode in the riding ring during lessons, though, Gigi lost her connection to them. She hated forcing the metal bit into their soft trusting mouths, imagining how that steel bar would feel tugging at the corners of her own mouth while some moron slapped her with a crop to make her jump over a stupid striped piece of wood, when she’d rather roll in a dusty paddock or nibble on grass.

At least Mom wasn’t teaching here this summer. Before Dad got sick, Mom was a royal pain, practically living at the barn and always checking in with the other instructors to find out how Gigi’s posting trot was coming along or whatever. Such a drag, having a mom who was hotter than you, as too many boys had told Gigi, and a former Junior Olympian, too, one of those fearless riders who could command show jumpers to hurdle seven-foot brick walls like they were wading through puddles.

Mom wanted to turn her into a “real” horsewoman, but all Gigi wanted was to watch the horses cantering in the pastures, tails high and flowing like fountains. She enjoyed riding the trails, too, and discovering hidden groves of ferns deep in the woods, or tall trees with violets making bruised carpets around the trunks.

Dad had understood this. He had loved the same things about horses she did. He’d tried to argue with her mother, saying, “The girl just wants to bop around on a horse. Why force her into the show ring if she doesn’t want to be there, Katherine?” But Mom always won. Dad had trouble saying no to anything she wanted.

Thinking about Dad now made Gigi huddle in the tack room, where she pretended to be searching for a currycomb in one of the boxes. She was crying and her nose was running; she wiped her face with one hand and then rubbed her hand on her jeans. She was supposed to curry her horse after each ride; this was another part of camp she enjoyed, unlike the other girls, who were always ready to rush out of the barn and go to the beach or whatever. She wasn’t like them, these country-club girls with the swinging hair, the girls who magically knew which phone apps were cool and what jeans to wear.

Her father hadn’t ever really belonged here at the club, either. Not because Dad was too old—lots of women at the club were married to men older than they were, just like her mom—but because of more mysterious reasons. Gigi hadn’t completely worked these out yet, but she thought they might have something to do with Dad not being Ivy League or having “real money,” as Gramma Dawn called it.

Whatever. It didn’t matter what anybody else thought of Dad. Gigi had adored him. They went trail riding together. They had fierce checkers matches and tennis games, and she had loved going into her father’s study after dinner while he read the paper and Gigi did her homework. She loved to lie on the sofa in his office with her head on his knee, comforted by the sound of her father’s ticking watch near her ear.

Her father told her things even Mom didn’t know. “Your mother is a delicate flower,” Dad always said. “You and me, we’re tough as weeds. People can cut us down, but we’ll always come back stronger.”

At the end, he hadn’t acted like a father. He was more like a friend. Dad listened to her talk instead of always telling her what to do. He gave her books he’d loved as a kid and they shared a secret obsession: rock music. Sometimes he’d get out his old CDs and they’d sing to the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, the Who and Pink Floyd. “Timeless classics,” he called them. “Like us.”

Gigi found the currycomb but stayed bent over, her hand in the tack box, rummaging for nothing, while the other girls passed, giggling on their way out of the barn. Her father had been her best friend, and now he was gone. But she knew some of his secrets, secrets so big that it felt like her skin might split wide open trying to keep them inside.

•   •   •

It was a simple graveside ceremony. The polished wooden box containing the ashes was supported on a wrought iron stand that to Ava looked suspiciously like one of the plant stands from her father’s office at the bank. The Episcopalian minister was a pudding-faced man whose belly strained his black shirt. He spoke about their father’s devotion to his work; to his daughters Ava and Elaine; and to his second family, Katy and Gigi.

BOOK: Beach Plum Island
9.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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