A review of The Bookshop at Water’s End by Patti Callahan Henry

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

The Book Shop at Water’s End
by Patti Callahan Henry
2017, ISBN 978-0-399-58311-7

Novels about girlhood friends reuniting as adults and reinventing their relationship are always popular. In The Book Shop at Water’s End by Patti Callahan Henry, the “summer sisters” are Bonny and Lainey, now in their fifties, who have kept in touch since their three pre-teen summers at Watersend, South Carolina, in the 1970s. As the story opens, Bonny is about to leave her domineering husband and her job as an Emergency Room doctor in Charleston, SC for a better position in Atlanta, GA. Then one night, flustered when an old friend, Owen, turns up in her E.R., she commits an error that possibly contributes to the death of another patient. Consequently, both her old job and the offer in Atlanta are up in the air until her mistake is evaluated.

Shaken by what she has done, Bonny decides to go to her family’s river house in Watersend and asks Lainey, now an artist in Petaluma, California, to come and see her through this crisis. Lainey’s kind husband, Tim, supports her decision to go with their two young children to Watersend, but wonders if revisiting the setting of a family tragedy is healthy for her. The third summer that Lainey’s family rented a cottage in Watersend, her alcoholic mother walked out of their lives and was never heard of again.

Over the years, Lainey’s elder brother, Owen, has kept in touch sporadically with Bonny but hardly ever with her. Her resentment over this situation comes out during her stay at Watersend. She knows Owen and Bonny have loved each other since adolescence, but feels that because he is her brother, co-sufferer of their mother’s disappearance, she has first claim on his care and attention. In fact, the relationship between Bonny and Owen has never blossomed, because of Owen’s wandering life. When he questions Bonny’s summer plans she says, “You can run to the wilderness or to another country or an ashram or an island, but I can’t go to Watersend?” The disappearance of his mother obviously has something to do with Owen’s choice not to settle down, and it would have been gratifying to see a deeper exploration of his character.

Bonny insists that Piper, her nineteen year old daughter, come with her so that she can keep an eye on her. Piper’s college asked her to leave after her first year because of her behaviour – the result, we learn, of an unhappy relationship with a faithless boyfriend. Piper is to mind Lainey’s children so that Lainey can work on her art while Bonny prepares the house for future sale. In Watersend, Piper finds new romance with a local youth and sorts out her problems with the aid of Mimi, proprietress of the town’s book shop.

“I didn’t exactly believe Mimi carried the secret of life, but sometimes I wondered,” Piper reflects.      Years earlier, Mimi’s store was a favourite haunt for Bunny and Lainey. Mimi is presented as a font of wisdom, and, in the hands of an Alice Hoffman, would have come across as magical and mysterious, but in Patti Callahan Henry’s hands she is a purveyor of self-help book slogans like: “Inside the very worst things you can find the power for change”; “Busy is something to be, but maybe not the best thing to be” and “We all do the very best we can.” As a source of information about Owen and Lainey’s mother, however, Mimi is necessary for the plot.

In the end, the principal characters find closure and even happiness. We can guess the solution to Bonny’s career dilemma, but her decision not to give love a chance, now that she is getting divorced, is disappointing. Then again, as Mimi says, “It’s more important to be the right girl than to find the right guy.”

The guy who inspired Patti Callahan Henry’s writing is the late Pat Conroy, a leading author of the tidewater American South. Conroy’s best known novels are The Great Santini (1976), The Lords of Discipline (1980) and The Prince of Tides (1986) In her dedication, Henry writes: “Your life and work taught me the power of story and of truth.” While some early readers of The Bookshop at Water’s End have compared Henry’s books to Conroy’s, the similarity rests mostly in their use of the South Carolina low country as setting. Conroy’s novels are powerful, gritty and dark, with troubled characters who may survive but don’t always find happiness. The Bookshop at Water’s End is not as deep or compelling as a Conroy novel but is a good summer read.

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta aspires to write as well as the Nobel Prize-winning Canadian author, Alice Munro. Her most recent novel is Grace and the Secret Vault (info@baico.ca)