It is impossible to hide in a small town, as anyone who has lived a significant amount of time in one will freely tell you. Plenty of people try, whether to escape from the larger world or run from their past. But they don’t succeed, at least not for long.
Many of the passionate, mysterious, and mysteriously passionate characters in Julia Glass’s new novel, “Vigil Harbor,” foolishly try to flout this almost axiomatic principle of small town life, creating an intimate and satisfying tableau of humanity as their deceptions trickle out and the deceivers are tracked down.
The action is largely told from the perspectives of a handful of locals, residents of a fictional community situated along the Massachusetts coast 30 miles northeast of Boston. Glass ensures that the various voices telling her stories sound distinctive, something ignored by too many authors writing from multiple points of view, which adds a lushness to the relatable stories they tell about the stresses of relationships, security, parenting, and trust.
While the novel’s dramas play out mainly on the small stage of Vigil Harbor, its themes arise from global and even existential events, with Glass drawing on a richly imagined world some dozen years in the future. Sad to say, that future does not look bright, often feeling like a paranoid Democrat’s fever dream. All of today’s familiar troubles — whether or not they are currently being acknowledged — have only gotten worse. The consequences of the pandemic have persisted. The trends of political intolerance have calcified into law. Visa raids and the need for sponsors have made it increasingly difficult for immigrants to stay in the country. And climate change is wreaking havoc. Superstorms are common, including a “monster” called Cunégonde that is still spoken of with fear. Seattle, Kyoto, and San Francisco have suffered damaging earthquakes. And someday soon, a colossal tsunami — “the Big T” — is forecast to originate off the coast of Spain and head straight for Vigil Harbor, obliterating it and “what’s left of” Cape Cod.
There has also been an uptick in terrorism, including recent bombings in Manhattan and Boston, though neither was as deadly as the car bomb that went off in New York City’s Union Square two years earlier. Twenty-two-year-old Brecht was caught up in the latter attack, which led to him dropping out of college and moving back home to Vigil Harbor, where he lives with his mom, Miriam, and his stepdad, Austin. Brecht works for a landscaping company run by Celestino, who was born in Guatemala and is one of the “very few non-white people who actually live and work in Vigil Harbor.” (Celestino’s wife, Connie, recalls her late brother saying that in Vigil Harbor, “diversity equals brunettes.”)
Brecht, Austin, and Celestino all are trying to hide from something in their pasts that is poised to catch up with them. Brecht’s antagonist is internal, so he must face it alone, but Austin and Celestino’s have faces and names. For Celestino, it is Ernesto Soltera, who shows up one day while he is at work and gets welcomed into his home by Connie. For Austin, it is Petra Coyle. Though they have never met, Petra is seeking revenge on Austin under the guise of writing a story about his high-end architectural practice, and her motivations are the most befuddling part of the novel.
Twenty-five years earlier, both Austin and Petra knew a woman named Issa. Austin was engaged to Issa when she threw herself into the Hudson River; her body was never found. Petra was in love with Issa too, having spent a few nights with her when Issa ran to her after arguing with Austin. Issa is the epitome of the manic pixie dream girl trope. She is “simple.” She “radiated wonder.” She is mesmerized by a pigeon. But she also makes brilliant paintings and sketches of the sea that only Austin is allowed to see. When Petra meets her, Issa is barefoot on a Hudson River walking path, yet her feet are perfect and perfectly clean. When Austin meets her, Issa is the nude model for his pop-up life drawing class. She has no body hair, but she also has no belly button, which is the first major clue that something fishy is going on, leading to intimations that could come from a Murakami novel. Petra’s vendetta stems from her acceptance of a myth that Austin’s grounding in reality doesn’t accommodate, and so in her mind, he is an abuser.
The novel’s main action, involving Ernesto, Celestino, and most of the town, is resolved on page 300, but Glass spends an additional 100 pages wrapping up Petra’s confrontation with Austin and numerous tertiary story lines. One character even relates the details of a podcast recording. After all the trauma, several characters question how comfortable they feel in Vigil Harbor, but readers should enjoy the time they spend there due to Glass’s felicitous attention to the nuances of small town life, from the pleasure found in pageantry to the nearly mythic status of longtime teachers. But ultimately this is a story about people, about understanding and acceptance, about love and violence, and about how no matter where we live, we need each other, especially when times are tough.
By Julia Glass
Pantheon, 416 pages, $29
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.