"Compass Rose" is an old-fashioned comfort food novel. It moves at an ambling pace, told in an easy-going storyteller's voice. It is the portrait of a coastal village in Rhode Island where the narrators are deeply, though at times unwillingly, interwoven in a web of relationships.
As the story opens, Elsie, the town's game warden, has just given birth to Rose, whose father, Dick, is married to May. Elsie's sister, Sally, is married to resort owner Jack. The resort's cook, Mary, is Elsie's close friend and helps raise Rose. Of May's two sons, the elder, Tom, accepts his stepsister, but his younger brother, Charlie, won't speak to his father for years. Charlie has a crush on Elsie and later takes up with Deirdre, who, May recognizes with some resentment, is very much like Elsie.
It takes a long time for May to forgive Dick and be able to bear the sight of her rival. In one of the apt images the novel excels in, "May wondered how long she'd have to go on pulling thoughts out of her head. It seemed as endless as pulling rocks out of a field" or weeds out of her prolific garden.
But as Rose grows older, May decides she wants to make her part of her own family. Rose, whose interior life is the only one we're not privy to, is the compass by which the others steer. There are a few crises, but we are confident they'll pass. As Rose moves into her teenage years, she and her mother bicker more and more. And Elsie, watching her grow more womanly, tries to prepare herself for the probability that Rose will one day leave the village and her three mothers behind.
Dick's fishing boat, the Spartina, is rammed by a wayward life boat and goes down. Charlie has a boating accident and goes to the hospital with a concussion. Jack covets May and Dick's property for resort expansion. And Miss Perry, Elsie's former Latin teacher and the town's grande dame, dies after years of slow decline that Elsie, her caregiver, watches with tender sorrow.
The climax of the novel is a musical that stars Rose (her singing talent nurtured over the years by Mary) and that brings all the people in her orbit together. And in the book's lyrical finale, Elsie, surrounded by her neighbors at a party, muses on "the genius of the place" that has rooted her here for life.
Brigitte Frase is a writer in Minneapolis.