Elizabeth Sumner Wafler's enchanting debut novel, In Robin's Nest, is a perfect feel-good summer read. The story is a rotating first person narration by three characters: Robin, Lark, and Dean, though Robin is clearly the lead protagonist. It is almost like reading parallel stories about the same events as the novel moves back and forth from 1977 to the present, creating a compelling 'will she or won't she' drama. Theresa, Robin's parents, and Dean's mother are strong secondary characters.
It opens with Robin's words in 2013: "Lessons learned are like bridges burned: you only need cross them once. Yet there are those of us who learn those lessons only after crossing our bridges over and over, retracing our footsteps as if looking for a mislaid pen or pair of glasses."
Robin Hamilton, an only child, is born to privilege and adoring parents who always stand beside her. She has a daughter, Lark, who also grows up in the lap of luxury with an adoring family. One thing is missing, though, and nothing can make up for it. Lark grows up without a father. Robin's parents help but it isn't the same as having a life partner, soul mate or even just a plain old husband. Robin eventually joins her father's law firm and becomes a successful Manhattan attorney, but she is alone with her daughter.
Robin's mother's cancer is a traumatic experience for their family, as cancer is in every family it attacks. But life goes on as it does for all those left behind when a loved one suffers and dies. The author describes the anguish as someone who has seen it first-hand, and the reader is increasingly pulled into the story with each page.
Robin's college boyfriend, Dean Thompson, has no idea he has a daughter. Extenuating circumstances leads to his dropping out of college. Then Robin drops out. Though he tries, he is unable to find Robin. Things happen. Their lives become complicated. Lark grows up. Then at the age of thirty-three, Lark finally meets her dad.
Robin's college roommate becomes her best friend for life and they stick together like sisters, always there for each other. She is an aunt to Lark. And Robin is there for Theresa when PTSD nearly strikes her down. In 1977 when the huge Con Edison power outage hits, Theresa and Robin are alone in their dorm. All they have are a couple small candles, and their flashlight's batteries are dead. They hear someone break the entry door to the building, and then methodically wood splintered as he breaks into room after room. They quickly move furniture to blockade their door, blow out their candles and hide in the closet. As their door is pushed and kicked they cling to each other, terrified. It is the year of Son of Sam, the notorious serial killer. Robin is shook up but is able to shrug it off and move on. Theresa compartmentalizes it, and it comes back to haunt her almost twenty years later.
The author's strength is in her descriptions of place, time and character development. She creates a believable, though improbable plot. But then we all know real life is often stranger than fiction. This is a richly detailed story of passion and failure, deception and honesty, with anticipation and nostalgia. It is about the living with your choices, and the ties that hold a family together.
Wafler has a unique story-telling style, and I was quickly hooked on the plot as well as the characters whose lives intertwined to make this a memorable novel.
Elizabeth Sumner Wafler lives in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with her husband and Cairn terrier, Mirabelle. She can often be found at a local farmer's market in search of the perfect heirloom tomato or bouquet of flowers, or at one of the area's beautiful vineyards enjoying a glass of Virginia wine. She is currently working on her second novel, A Faculty Daughter. Visit her website.
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