This novel by a a Canadian author who was unfamiliar to me was an extremely pleasant surprise. I had a hard time putting the book down.
The story begins when the matriarch of the family, Kate, goes over a waterfall in the Thunder Bay area in a barrel. She lives, but ends up in a coma and an internet sensation. Subsequent chapters are written from the perspective of her many family members as they struggle to figure out why Kate did what she did and whether they should have been able to predict and then stop it.
First we meet Finn. She is the "prodigal" daughter who escaped Thunder Bay to pursue her dreams in Toronto. At least that's how it looks on the surface. In fact she works from home, writing warning labels for a myriad of products and has little social life to speak of. She has not had a relationship since she left Thunder Bay in a huff several years earlier in part because her twin sister Nicki had an affair with her long term boyfriend Dallas and ended up bearing him a son.
Nicki is a hairdresser living with her parents and working out of their garage. She has four children by three different fathers including, sixteen year old London whose perspective is often shared in the book too. Nicki is married to Hamish (who is not the father of any of the children), a bootlegger who unknowingly provided Kate's barrel for her trip over the falls.
Shawn was a homeless boy who Kate adopted when he was a teenager and ended up in her yard after riding the rails for several years. At first he expected to spend a few weeks with the family, steal what he could and set out on his own. But he came to love the family and they came to love him so he stayed and he is perhaps now the most devoted of Kate's children. All is not well with him though as his marriage with his high school sweetheart, Katriina, is in disarray. She keeps miscarrying (though they have two sons) and has started cutting herself to cope with the pressure of always being perfect in Shawn's eyes. Several chapters are also seen from Katriina's perspective.
Walter, Kate's husband, has been in love with her since childhood when they lived on neighbouring farms. Dubbed "waiting Walter" by Kate he seems to have spent his life enduring her mysterious disappearances and then being her rock when she resurfaces. He has his flaws though - fiercely in love with Lake Superior, he spends months at a time giving tours or servicing ice fishing camps. He has known for years that something is not quite right with Kate, but he has tried his best to ignore it and to keep it from the children.
London, Kate's granddaughter has become obsessed with sharks and enters into an internet relationship with a celebrity marine biologist - at least she thinks so. She thus becomes focused on chasing him down when he is making an appearance in Duluth, not far from Thunder Bay. Much of the climax of the book takes place when London finally convinces an unlikely family member to accompany her to Duluth. She's devastated when her marine biologist has no idea who she is - and turns out to be a bit of a fraud. However, the secrets she learns about her family and how much they all mean to each other are far more valuable.
Ultimately this is a story of the bonds of family, the secrets between family members and the harm they can cause and how, in moments of crisis, it is often only our crazy family members that we can turn to. The book is well written, all of the characters are flawed but endearing and the story is well paced. All in all it makes for a great read.