Sweet Salt Air by Barbara Delinsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Charlotte and Nicole have been best friends since they were about eight years old, but for the past ten years their friendship has been sustained mostly through brief emails and phone calls. Nicole doesn't know it, but about a month before her wedding, her husband-to-be and Charlotte got drunk and had a brief sexual encounter on a secluded beach. Both regretted it immediately, never spoke of it to anyone, and have avoided all contact with each other since then, but the guilt continues to strain their relationships with Nicole. Now Nicole needs Charlotte to come back to the island of Quinnipeague, Maine, for the first time since the wedding and interview locals and some regular summer visitors as part of a collaboration on a cookbook Nicole is writing. Charlotte sees it as her chance to atone for her sins and agrees.
Nicole is grateful for the writing help as well as for the moral support as she tries to prepare the family's summer home for sale now that her father has died and her mother can no longer bear to visit without him. However, the effort of keeping a secret from Charlotte is too much for Nicole, and in no time at all she blurts out the burden she's been carrying alone for four years: her brilliant surgeon husband, Julian, has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and the treatments aren't working to stop the progression of his disease. Julian hasn't allowed Nicole to tell anyone--not her mother, not his kids, not his parents, not his friends, and not his colleagues--for fear that it would end his career.
One of the locals Charlotte would like to interview for the book is Cecily Cole, whose garden is the source of most of the herbs on the island and is viewed with awe and not a little superstition, but Cecily is dead, and her son refuses to participate. However, Charlotte cannot resist the lure and sneaks down to the property one night when she can't sleep, only to discover Leo on a ladder attempting to fix a large, heavy shutter by himself. Leo does not welcome her presence but does let her help him fix the shutter. Over Nicole's strenuous objections, Charlotte returns night after night, slowly getting to know the infamous local bad boy...who it turns out is not actually all that bad.
I loved this book. It's a great example of "women's fiction": romance is a very strong element, but the central focus of the novel is the friendship between Charlotte and Nicole. It's very much a character-driven story, with the island itself feeling like another character, as it's shaped so much of their lives. (Not to mention the near-mystical properties of Cecily's herbs.)
For readers' advisors: character and setting doorways are strongest. A little swearing and plenty of sex scenes, although nothing too terribly explicit--more often than not just telling readers how often and where Leo & Charlotte are getting busy.
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