Book review: The Ocean in Winter by Elizabeth de Veer

Friday, July 16, 2021 Permalink

I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Ocean in Winter by Elizabeth de Veer. I’d requested it from an online review platform thinking perhaps it was a mystery or thriller (ie. my reading bread & butter). It’s not, but that was fine.

de Veer cleverly plots this out in almost a circular way. We start near the end before moving back in time. The book unfolds from three sisters’ points of view. The opening scene tells us a little of the history before we reach those events, but holds back on details to sustain the intrigue.

Book review: The Ocean in Winter by Elizabeth de VeerThe Ocean In Winter
by Elizabeth de Veer
Published by Blackstone Publishing
on 06/07/2021
Source: NetGalley
Genres: Literary Fiction
ISBN: 1982674644
Pages: 400

The lives of the three Emery sisters were changed forever when Alex, eleven at the time, found their mother drowned in the bathtub of their home. After their mother’s suicide, the girls’ father shut down emotionally, leaving Alex responsible for caring for Colleen, then eight, and little Riley, just four.

Now the girls are grown and navigating different directions. Alex, a nurse, has been traveling in India and grieving her struggle to have a child; Colleen is the devoted mother of preteens in denial that her marriage is ending; and Riley has been leading what her sisters imagine to be the dream life of a successful model in New York City. Decades may have passed, but the unresolved trauma of their mother’s death still looms over them creating distance between the sisters.

Then on a March night, a storm rages near the coast of northeastern Massachusetts. Alex sits alone in an old farmhouse she inherited from a stranger. The lights are out because of the storm; then, an unexpected knock at the door. When Alex opens it, her beautiful younger sister stands before her. Riley has long been estranged from their family, prompting Colleen to hire the private investigator from whom they’d been awaiting news. Comforted by her unexpected presence, Alex holds back her nagging questions: How had Riley found her? Wouldn’t the dirt roads have been impassable in the storm? Why did Riley insist on disappearing back into the night?

After her mysterious visitation, Alex and Colleen are determined to reconcile with Riley and to face their painful past, but the closer they come to finding their missing sister, the more they fear they’ll only be left with Riley’s secrets.

There’s something about the opening that I think gives us a clue as to what’s ultimately coming but it’s paced brilliantly so very much about the journey there.

All three sisters are likeable. Alex and Colleen are very relatable. Riley less-so because her world is addled. We soon learn why she’s so vague about everything and it’s almost impossible to imagine how someone can live like that, though I’m conscious that many do.

This is another book where the events of the present very much stem from those in the past. Alex feels she put things on hold to raise her sisters, perhaps delaying happiness; Colleen is determined to be the perfect mother and wife with the perfect family, house and life – none of which she had;  and Riley felt she was let down by the one person who could save her and – ever since – has seen herself as beyond redemption.

All three feel cheated of their mother and sad and angry that they were forced to live life without her.

The book spans just a few months and de Veer paces that time well. I initially thought it might take some time to get to reach the events of the book’s opening, but it doesn’t. And though the distant past is the genesis of everything happening in the present, we’re not taken back there for any length of time. It’s just referenced briefly. This is very much about events in NOW. (Albeit resulting from those twenty-five years earlier.)

My only qualm is that I didn’t find their father’s behaviour consistent and would have liked ‘more’ about their history with him. I’m always bewildered by books in which children know nothing of their parents’ families or that they haven’t asked. Here there seems to be obvious secrets being kept from the girls and their father’s actions in the present don’t seem to stem from any particular cause. Interestingly (however) I caught up with an old school friend not long after finishing this and she mentioned not knowing much / anything about one of her parent’s families. This intrigued me and I explained that I didn’t understand how it was possible. She shrugged, “They just didn’t talk about it and we knew not to ask,” she said.

I very much enjoyed this book. It’s beautifully written and it’s certainly bittersweet. There’s a sense of helplessness rather than hopelessness. It could be depressing but instead I felt a sense of resolution.

The Ocean in Winter by Elizabeth de Veer was published by Blackstone Publishing and is now available.

I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 


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