The moral dilemma thoughtfully explored in this debut novel is whether good deeds cancel bad ones. Can we expiate our past sins by leading an exemplary life? Frances is grappling with this question as she, at 42 and diagnosed with terminal cancer, revisits an episode of her youth that still shames her.
At 22, Frances hooks up with a group of wealthy Americans vacationing in the Mexican desert. She speaks Spanish, they do not; a chance encounter in a cafe leads the three couples to invite her to stay with them at their rented mansion. They have maids and nannies to care for the children, so "Frankie," as they call her, is free to join the adults in their self-indulgent lifestyle. Her nickname lends a certain insouciance to her new-found life with these devil-may-care, no-worries Americans. She still gives English lessons to two students, but that is the last vestige of the life she lived before meeting Patsy and Richard, BeeBee and Ned, Sally and Mason. Their palatial home has a beautiful room for Frankie, a constant party atmosphere and no end of booze. Quite a change from her squalid apartment and vanished boyfriend.
The inevitable happens: she has an affair with Mason, falls deeply in love with him and comes to believe that this is no mere dalliance but the Real Thing. Alas, she is very sadly mistaken. The results of this affair and the alliances and misalliances between and among the couples leave her shaken, ashamed and feeling betrayed. She is not yet ready to examine her own culpability.
Now, two decades later, living in rural England with her much-beloved husband, Phillip, she finds a letter from his book editor, Josee, that is obviously romantic in tone. She and Phillip have no children of their own but she reared Chloe, Phillip's daughter, who had been abandoned by her mother. Surely that is a huge mark on the good side of her life ledger! She doesn't deserve this infidelity... or does she? Is this just deserts for her own cavalier affair with a married man? McKinlay engages the reader in a meditation, going back and forth between the Mexican sojourn and Frances's illness and discovery of Phillip's indiscretion, laying out the events, her feelings and the understanding she has gained over time.--Valerie Ryan
Shelf Talker: A debut novel that asks the question: Can an adult life well lived cancel early indiscretions?