Winslow’s exotic mystery has two young American students Polly and Liv living in Cambridge, England, indulging in a world of academia and puzzles and yearning for handsome, mercurial Nicholas Frey. The opening pages of the story recount Polly’s strange encounter with Nick where she’s unceremoniously sick in front of him in his study. Polly has proven herself more than capable of crossing boundaries, but it is this first meeting that cements her connection to warm and gentle Nick, the nicest person she's met in Cambridge.
This new, reinvented Polly is running from a life of scandal back in America, where the past actions of her father pushed her family to the brink of despair. Sensing an opportunity to better herself in the eyes of Nick, she accompanies Liv to the house of blind academic Gretchen Paul to help index a messed-up collection of vacation shots
from the Fifties. Set in foreign countries, most of the images detail the lives and loves of two beautiful women: Gretchen’s Aunt Ginny and Gretchen’s mother, Linda Paul.
Linda Paul was a novelist who wrote a series of five semi-autobiographical books about a young woman called Susan Maud Madison. Gretchen, however, is unsure whether her mother is actually Linda Paul or the woman who is named in the books. Harboring a possessiveness over the photographs, Gretchen is desperate to unlock the mystery behind the identity of her mother. Attending to her husband Harry, who breeds canaries in a special room upstairs, Gretchen also proves to be an officious administrator, handing out orders to Liv and reminding the girl of her obligations: "there’s to be no socializing on the job."
Nick, on the cusp on the cusp of organizing most of Gretchen’s photos, suddenly vanishes, failing to appear at a meeting and missing an important appointment with Richard Keene, his academic supervisor. Liv, Polly, Gretchen and Richard are unable to shed any light on Nick’s whereabouts. Inspector Morris, the officer assigned to the case, asks if Nick had problems,
but Polly and Liv inform him that Nick is the last person in the world to be in any kind of trouble.
Nick’s disappearance causes a rift between Liv and Polly when it is revealed that Liv had “finished Nick off” the day Polly got him as high as a kite. Soon speculation is drifting toward Nick’s death, either by murder or by accident; even the Cam is dredged for his body. What appears to be a fairly serious investigation becomes far more complicated when Polly’s mother, Mrs. Bailey, arrives in Cambridge with the news that she’s divorcing Polly’s father
- and that she had talked to Nick and found out what passed between him and her daughter.
With the blunt force of shocking trauma, Winslow layers four very different narrative voices against the hallowed halls of Cambridge: the grand arcades; the solid, arched entryways; the stone courtyards; the college rooms lively with activity; the insular world of academics and students; and the cloistered passions of girls and boys, obscured by elaborate riddles which are steadily encapsulated by a dark Cambridge winter that comes too early.
Gretchen, desperate for answers, attempts to “knead memories out of air" while Liv pounces on the blind woman's paradoxes with detached fascination. Nick is deeply distressed that he misled his friends and stirred up secrets that weren’t any of his business, and Polly is vulnerable to lies and distressing confrontations. Allegations of murder and a devastating accident are the catalysts in this dense, languid story which fuses Gretchen's mysterious past with the present-day traumas of Nick, Polly and Liv.