The writer Sam Lattimore, whose wife Elizabeth was murdered, continues to see his dead wife and tries to convince others, such as his skeptical therapist, that he is not imagining things. Sam Lattimore is struggling with grief over the recent death of his wife Elizabeth Church, who was murdered by the psychotic bellman Alfonse Padgett at the hotel where the couple was living. The story takes place in Halifax
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To make matters worse, a film crew, led by the obsessive Norwegian director Istvakson, is in the area to make a movie of the events. Sam, who needed the money to survive, has sold the rights to the filmmakers and must deal with constant interruptions on his privacy as Istvakson and his assistant badger him to talk about his marriage and Elizabeth's death in detail.
As Sam discloses to his therapist Dr. Nissensen, he continues to see Elizabeth on the beach near the cottage he has purchased. Elizabeth does not, however, appear like a ghost but as he remembers her. He sees her piling up books on the beach and the two have brief conversations before she vanishes. Sam is convinced that she is actually returning to him, while his therapist thinks he is having hallucinations to offset his grief at losing her.
The novel, which takes place in the early 1970s, contains many flashbacks as it recounts how Sam and Elizabeth met at an art opening, fell in love and got married. They live for a time at the picturesque Essex Hotel in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At first life is idyllic as Sam works on his novel and Elizabeth on her dissertation for a Victorian novel called The Victorian Chaise-Longue When the couple take dance classes given at the hotel, however, the bellman Padgett develops an obsession with Elizabeth. He begins to harass the couple in a variety of ways, including breaking into their room and cutting up an antique chaise-longue that Elizabeth had wanted because it reminded her of the book she was doing her dissertation on. Although the couple report Padgett to both the hotel and the local police, he is not fired from the hotel and continues to torment them. Finally, he buys a gun, follows Elizabeth into an elevator and shoots her dead. Padgett is arrested for the crime and convicted, though this brings Sam little solace.
The novel is not told in chronological order, but skips back in forth in time. This is mirrored by a discussion of the novel Elizabeth is studying, which deals with romance and time travel. Sam never doubts that he is really seeing Elizabeth on the beach. Sam discovers that the books Elizabeth has been piling up on the beach were actually stolen from the local library in Port Medway, where he is now living. He orders new copies of the books and has them sent to the library.
Another aspect of the story deals with Sam's conflict with the director Peter Istvakson, who is completely insensitive to Sam's need for privacy. He continues to send his assistant Lily Svetgartot to pressure Sam into helping out with the details of the movie. This situation reaches a head when Istvakson, while drunk, lurks outside Sam's cottage on the beach. Sam shoves Istvakson and the director drowns. Sam did not actually mean to kill him but he doesn't exactly feel guilty about the incident either and never reports it.
Sam stops seeing Dr. Nissensen, who never believes that Sam can really see Elizabeth. Elizabeth gives Sam the final piece of information that she has been withholding from him, the details of the day she was killed. Sam blacks out after hearing this and is sent to a hospital to recover. After he returns home, he no longer sees Elizabeth. There is the possibility he will start dating the local librarian, though he still believes he will see Elizabeth again. As the novel ends, it remains uncertain whether Elizabeth will ever appear to Sam again or if she has fulfilled her purpose by telling him everything that happened.
Best part of story, including ending:
I did not like the fact that we never really find out whether Elizabeth was real or not and, at the end, if she was going to ever return again. There was a certain ambiguity to the book that made it hard to know what the author really wanted to say about the afterlife.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was the description of how Sam and Elizabeth met at an art opening and found that they had a shared interest in the arts. This helped to explain why they were so well suited for one another.
Opinion about the main character:
I did not like the way Sam continue his contentious relationship with Dr. Nissensen. This seemed like mostly a plot device so Sam had someone with whom he could discuss his feelings. However, it didn't seem like he should keep paying and visiting the therapist if he wasn't getting anything out of the sessions.