In "A Very Inconvenient Scandal," what begins as a story of startling family complications, amounting to "I'm My Own Grandpa (Cape Cod version)," takes a late turn into thriller territory. If you're a fan of the latter, hang on. If you prefer emotional drama, stick around for the shot of suspense on your way out.
Since her debut, "The Deep End of the Ocean," inaugurated Oprah's Book Club, Jacquelyn Mitchard has written a slew of novels exploring, as they say, how families come together and apart. In "A Very Inconvenient Scandal," she's done it again — this time from the point of view of young Frankie, urgently summoned to the family's splendid seaside home.
First, she discovers that there's no emergency and then has her own news of a pregnancy and impending marriage seriously upstaged. Her lifelong friend Ariel, 27, is way more pregnant — by Frankie's widowed father Mack, 60 — and they're about to get married. Oh, and if that weren't enough, they want Frankie, a professional photographer of underwater wonders, to take the pictures.
This is more set-up than spoiler, as the story proceeds from there: Frankie scandalized and furious (hadn't her mother, the beloved Beatrice, dead a mere year, also mothered Ariel in the mysterious absence of Ariel's mom?); Ariel sad and defiant; Mack, a "famous marine conservationist," characteristically arrogant and impatient; and Frankie's brother Penn, who lives at home and works with his father, somewhere in the mix. Frankie's Canadian fiancé, Gil, arrives. Ariel's mysteriously absent mother, Carlotta, mysteriously appears (at the wedding!). Things get increasingly fraught.
With Frankie's wildlife photography, Gil's work for an organization "dedicated to purchasing and preserving unspoiled habitat" and Mack's helming of the conservationist Saltwater Foundation, the novel is packed with information on each of these topics, with a strong watery undertow. I won't quibble that this has little to do with the central drama because it's all really quite informative and interesting.
And the long, dramatic birthing scene, I won't say that it's like many we've seen in other novels — because I cried, anyway.
When the plot thickens, I won't agree with Frankie that "[t]he whole scenario was ridiculous, like some kind of paperback Gothic romance spinning around on a magazine rack in the Brewster General Store" because where's the fun in that? After all, as she thinks when the plot gets thicker still, "Didn't every Gothic novel in the world hinge on the unknown father?"
There are dark secrets revealed (also light ones), mean-girl histories excavated, betrayals and redemptions, life-threatening twists, fabulous scenery and thoughtful reflections on motherhood and family bonds. You'd have to be a real curmudgeon to resist all of that, so why try? Give in, and don't be surprised by how much pleasure there is in exploring these familiar places anew.
Ellen Akins is a Wisconsin-based writer and teacher. Her next Star Tribune review will be of Delphine De Vigan's "Kids Run the Show."
A Very Inconvenient Scandal
By: Jacquelyn Mitchard.
Publisher: Mira, 336 pages, $30.