Robin Nolet’s book starts out with a very applicable quote from Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Out of the welter of life, a few people are selected for us by the accident of temporary confinement in the same circle. We never would have chosen these neighbors; life chose them for us. But thrown together on this island of living, we stretch to understand each other, and are invigorated by the stretching. In The Shell Keeper, the island is the Colorado skiing town of Blue River and the shells tossed on the beach are Gwen, Claire, and Del. Thrown together by tides they cannot fathom, the women find a common thread that brings them together as friends despite their best intentions to remain strangers.
The book lets us spend time with each of them alone, and as a group. Like most people who have spent any time at all in the sea of humanity, all three have the bumps and bruises from being caught in the surf of relationships. Del’s emotions are the most raw, her marriage is crumbling and the whole town seemed to know of her husband’s infidelity except her. While Del struggles openly with the collapse of her marriage, Claire internalizes her feelings of betrayal from a long-ago cheating husband and an inconsiderate friend. Gwen is the rock of the group, but also not without a philandering ex and some baggage that occasionally boils to the surface.
The scene is set mostly in the bakery that Gwen attempts to keep in the black with the help of her new husband and college-age son. The walls of the bakery are adorned with her water-color paintings, not of the town’s inhabitants, but of the town’s inhabitants – if they were seashells. Her one brush with the sea when she was 12 has given Gwen a perspective of humanity as hermit crabs, trying on this shell or that, trying to make one work as a permanent identity.
Nolet’s writing is direct and to the point, but it doesn’t lack for charm. In this paragraph, Del has taken a new job at a women’s shop and I enjoyed the detail of this description:
Del wrapped the cardigan in Imagine’s trademark powder blue tissue, sealed the tissue with a white sticker embossed with a pearlescent “I” and tucked the package into a beautiful, powder-blue lacquer-finished bag with powder blue ribbons for handles. Across the front of the bag was another pearlescent “I”. She inserted the customer’s receipt into a small, matching envelope and added it to the bag.
The women aren’t as well sketched as the shopping bag. We get some clues to their physical appearance, but not a full picture. Nonetheless, we can picture them; the somewhat matronly Gwen, the pretty but slightly severe Claire, the tussled Del who is stronger than she thinks. We may even know them, or people very similar to them.
The book explores love, betrayal, redemption, friendship, and family in a way that is very relatable. By the end, you can’t help but think about the shells you’ve tried on yourself, the ones that never quite felt right, the ones that looked good but didn’t fit, and the ones that ultimately felt like home. In The Shell Keeper, Robin Nolet paints three compelling portraits of realistic women leaning on each other to get through a rough patch in their lives.