Grief Cottage

By Gail Godwin

Bloomsbury. 321 pp. $27

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Reviewed by Mary Cornatzer


nolead ends Eleven-year-old Marcus has come to live with his great-aunt Charlotte at her South Carolina beach cottage. Charlotte is an artist. Her humor is as dry as the wine she likes to drink, and her demeanor a bit gruff. She meets Marcus with a handshake and the words, "Well, Marcus, here we are."

Marcus has landed with Charlotte because of the death of his mother. This is not the first loss in his life. He doesn't know who his father was; his mom was going to tell him when he was older. And then there's Wheezer, the best friend he lost when Marcus' temper got the better of him one day.

Marcus is given to introspection and feels deeply. He likes to take care of people. For instance, he's the kind of boy who cleans up a bathroom after a friend is ill in it.

Marcus soon decides Charlotte doesn't want him. The way he figures it, she took him in only because his mom - as poor as they were (so poor they had only one bed) - had taken out a good insurance policy. He's the beneficiary, but Charlotte gets a monthly stipend. For all his introspection, Marcus is not that great at reading people. He believes he has interrupted Charlotte's solitary life and tries to stay out of her way. We know she has a good heart and is just worried about him.

Marcus, who has never seen the ocean before, becomes mildly obsessed with the sea turtles nesting near his aunt's home, and with a condemned cottage at the end of the island. It has been dubbed Grief Cottage because a family who had been vacationing there were killed during Hurricane Hazel.

Early on, Marcus visits the cottage. He feels he's being watched. On another visit, he sees a boy ghost. Marcus flies off the porch but later returns, feeling a connection between himself and the dead teenager. You may see where this is going, and you'd be right - to a point. Gail Godwin has not written a horror story, though she knows how to make the atmosphere tense and your skin tingle. At 80, the author, who grew up in Asheville and graduated from UNC, is returning to long-favorite themes: longings and loss, motherless children, and the repercussions of death.

The plot is satisfying - and, as someone who doesn't like ambiguous endings, I appreciate that Godwin not only wraps up the loose ends but also lets us know what people were thinking. And Godwin's writing is worth savoring.

Grief Cottage is not the fluffy stuff of many a summer beach read, but it's well worth a place in your beach bag this season.

This review originally appeared in the (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer.