This is a novel that doesn't hammer home its themes or its message: it avoids sensationalism, and has a quietness, a restrained (though not humourless) quality that reminds me of early Annie Proulx.
It's the story of three sisters, and the choices that affect them: some are choices that they consciously make, some are subconscious, and some are other people's choices forced upon them.
Caroline is the eldest. It's her idea, as a teenager, to run away to New Orleans. Fifteen years later, she's a cocktail waitress there: single, lost, dreading the Christmas holiday and the claustrophobic company of what's left of her family.
The middle sister is Madeline, who doesn't approve of Caroline; who wants closure; who wants, it seems, to recapture the past.
The youngest sister is Ellie. Was Ellie. Ellie was all packed and ready to go to New Orleans, but then she disappeared. No one's seen Ellie Winters for fifteen years.
Other characters' stories weave in and out of the tale of the sisters. Bernard, the man their mother was due to marry before she ran off to New York and met their father, contemplates his own lost choices and mistakes. Roxie, a teenage runaway, tells Caroline that the girl in the photo she carries doesn't want to be found. Anthony, the liquor store owner, knows about loss: his wife was a victim of 9/11. (Perhaps it's because I don't read much contemporary fiction, but references to 9/11 in fiction seem remarkably sparse: I can only think of two others.) Agnes, a librarian in Montana, writes long and surprisingly intimate letters to a pen-pal she's never met.
I rather like Agnes:
On Friday, I came home after work to find a crisp brown envelope in my mailbox. (I have a snazzy mailbox, Johan. It's a regular metal box, but then I've added a fish head and a fish tail, made out of wood. I conceived of the whole project one night after four glasses of Chardonnay. Quel succes! I speak French.)
I admired the author for stopping when she did, and for leaving the underlying story as an exercise for the reader rather than telling us straight out what happened to Ellie Winters. And when she stops, the story's over, even though several new ones are beginning.