Peggy Cort is the librarian of a small Cape Cod tourist town in the 1950s. She’s the very definition of a spinster in her brown tweed and sensible shoes. She’s lonely, weary with it, resigned to it, defined by it. “Socks mate for life,” she says sadly, and in those words, the reader understands perfectly how desperately Peggy wants to be loved. And then one day, James Sweatt, eleven years old, walks in to her library on a field trip, and her life changes in that instant. James is big – Peggy has heard talk of the boy around town – but until she sees him, over six feet tall at that age, she doesn’t realize just how big he really is. And James is a true giant; by the end of the book he is well over eight feet tall.
The novel spans nine years or so, from James’ introduction to Peggy at eleven until his death at age twenty. (Don’t worry – I’m not giving anything away. Peggy tells us he dies in the first page.) Over those nine years, Peggy manages to forge a friendship with James’ mother, the ethereal Mrs. Sweatt, his aunt Caroline and uncle Oscar, and finally, with James himself. She inserts herself into their lives, their family, until she is a necessary part of it, like an important limb that after a time they cannot imagine themselves without. James comes to depend upon Peggy to be his friend, his personal librarian, his company late at night, his traveling companion, his advocate. And Peggy, with all her loneliness, falls into a weird sort of love with James, one she knows she can’t act on, one that she isn’t sure she wants to act on. James dies, of course – the human body isn’t meant to sustain the kind of growth that James experienced – and Peggy is left alone again, locked in her grief and denial.
Can I tell you something? It wasn’t so bad. Not so bad at all right then, me scowling at the dirt, James in his bed, the way it always always was. Look, if that’s all that happened, if his dying just meant that I would be waiting for him to say something instead of listening to him say something, it would have been fine.
It’s difficult to discuss parts of this book without spoiling it, so I’ll just say that I had many mixed emotions. There were times I felt that Peggy was wholly inappropriate, a master manipulator, preying on a weakened Mrs. Sweatt and taking advantage of their family. But then there were times I felt that Peggy was just sad, lonely, and so desperate for any semblance of family and love that she intentionally sought out this quirky, strange family, knowing that she herself was quirky and strange, and therefore, they would have no choice but to accept her. On the whole, I felt sorry for Peggy, mourned her loneliness, but then grew angry at some of her behavior after James’ death, declaring it selfish and manipulative, but then felt that maybe she had been taken advantage of, and was just trying to make the best of a sad situation. I simultaneously loved Peggy, hated her, and felt sorry for her. And truly, I felt that way about most of the characters, which I think is at least part of what makes this book so extraordinary.
For years I’d waited for someone to love me: that was the permission I needed to fall in love myself, as though I were a pin sunk deep in a purse, waiting for a magnet to prove me metal. When that did not happen, I’d thought of myself as unlovable.
…It was this I’d waited for all my life: a love that would make me useful, a love that would occupy all my time.