There’s such pleasure in diving into a novel set in a remote locale, especially a lush, tropical one. When done well, as it is in Pieces of Blue by Holly Goldberg Sloan ’80, the reading experience can be akin to actual travel. Sloan brings us to the shores of O‘ahu and into the lives of four downcast outsiders—a mother and her three children, just off the plane and doubtful they can turn this unfamiliar place into home. The kids, ages 7 to 14, are all irresistible, fully developed characters. Sloan’s keen grasp of children—how they think, feel, and speak—is no surprise: While this is her debut adult novel, Sloan is the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of beloved young adult and middle grade fiction.
At the heart of Pieces of Blue is Lindsey, a widow moving her grieving family to Hawai‘i to renovate a ramshackle motel that she’s purchased sight unseen. Her dedication to her kids is clear from the opening pages, as is her determination. But that’s not to say she isn’t struggling mightily as a result of her family’s recent losses. She and her children have endured betrayal, hardship, and trauma, all related to her husband’s shocking death. A fixer-upper project on an island almost 3,000 miles from home is a surprising choice for a single mom seeking stability and a fresh start. Indeed, there’s a moment in Pieces of Blue when Lindsey can tell that the motel “had shifted the ground under [her] feet. She felt as vulnerable as the shoreline.”
The ground is constantly shifting throughout this novel, and each family member has to fight to gain and regain his or her footing. One way to do that is to keep moving: The children paint the motel cabins, each one in a different color; Lindsey makes bouillabaisse in hopes that the handsome stranger who shows up on her doorstep will do more for her than fix the motel’s outdated wiring; and they all try to forge new friendships, or at least (in the case of 7-year-old Sena) tame the chickens. But try as they may, none of them can outrun their complicated past.
As tropical storms so often change course, catching those in their paths unprepared, Sloan has crafted a novel that is as surprising as it is haunting. On this beautiful, richly storied island, even old petroglyphs carved into sandstone can (and do) resurface after a storm, refusing to stay buried. Pieces of Blue reminds us that if one stands long enough under a dark, ominous sky, some much-needed light will eventually shine through.
Poeppel, a novelist, is the author most recently of Sweet Spot.