Susan Wilson’s previous release,Hawke’s Cove, was a pleasant surprise for me - a slow-moving but satisfying love triangle set primarily during World War II. Her new novel, Cameo Lake, isn’t quite as good, but it’s still an engaging, well-written romance. With only three novels under her belt (her debut was an unusual update of Beauty and the Beast), Wilson writes like a seasoned veteran.
New Hampshire’s Cameo Lake is supposed to be a writer’s retreat for Cleo McCarthy. Her best friend Grace gives her the use of a lakeside cottage to finish her long-delayed novel, and her husband Sean reluctantly agrees to handle the parenting responsibility for their two children. But Cleo doesn’t have the quiet, productive summer she expects. She meets her neighbor, Ben Turner, a gentle loner whose beautiful but haunting piano music frequently fills the air. The residents of Cameo Lake seem mistrustful of Ben, a reaction that mystifies Cleo. As she discovers the secrets behind Ben’s past, she feels more and more compassion for him, as well as a not totally unwelcome attraction. But at the same time, she begins picking up signals that Sean, who years ago confessed to an affair, may be roving again. So should she fight for her marriage or follow through with her feelings for Ben? Does she really love him, or is she just using him to deal with Sean’s possible betrayal?
Cameo Lake is neither action packed nor lively, but it’s a thoughtful, gracefully written novel. Wilson does a fine job of portraying the multiple facets of Cleo’s personality - her creativity, the solace she finds in her daily run, and her love for her kids even when they infringe on her writing time (I could identify with her problems - when Sean unceremoniously dumps the kids on her for several weeks, Cleo knows she’s on “mommy duty” and can’t concentrate enough to write for more than 15 minutes at a time, even though the kids are old enough to entertain themselves. I’ve been there, sister, I’ve been there). She also makes a compelling case for why Cleo doesn’t immediately dump her charming but fickle husband - Cleo’s own parents, now dead, were emotionally distant, and Cleo considers Sean’s mother and siblings her only true family.
Wilson provides Ben with an intriguing past and a devastating secret. The build-up of Cleo’s relationship with him is engaging and romantic, despite the threat of adultery that runs through it. Given the titles of Wilson’s two recent releases, it’s obvious that setting is very important to her. She utilizes evocative but not overblown descriptive prose, so that the reader can feel the quiet beauty of Cameo Lake that heals both Cleo and, eventually, Ben. But about halfway through the novel, Cameo Lake becomes less of a romance and more of a portrait of a dying marriage. Though a bittersweet happy ending results, the last half of the book doesn’t live up to the first half’s promise.
Hawke’s Cove is now out in paperback, and it’s highly recommended. Cameo Lake suffers slightly in comparison, but I’d still recommend it to anyone who likes a good women’s fiction story. I look forward to much more from this talented author.