Southern novelist Jill McCorkle’s latest character-driven and emotionally vivid novel is set—as is most of her previous work—in Fulton, North Carolina, a small town in which the reader quickly becomes immersed. Her story centers on the residents and staff of Pine Haven Retirement Center—their stories adroitly interwoven by McCorkle, layer by layer, as she gradually illuminates how their pasts intersected far before they came together in the present.

Joanna is a hospice volunteer who keeps a notebook with an entry for each person she visits when they die—their favorite things, their memories, their last words. One of her first journal entries was about her own father’s death, including the fact that he never told her he loved her. Joanna’s somewhat mysterious past includes numerous marriages, somewhere between three and seven, depending on who’s doing the gossiping. Her best friend is C.J.—a tattooed and pierced single mom half Joanna’s age whose life so far has been one long struggle. She now helps groom the hair and nails of Pine Haven’s grateful residents. Sadie, 85 and wheelchair-bound, is a former third-grade teacher who sees an 8-year-old inside everyone she meets. Her best friend and loyal companion is Abby, the 13-year-old who lives next door and visits Pine Haven daily to escape her constantly bickering parents.

McCorkle interweaves the stories of these unlikely friendships to offer penetrating insight into the different routes aging might lead us along, and how we think about death—for ourselves, as well as the ones we love. But her signature humor shines through, lightening the mood just when it’s most needed. This is a beautifully written, perceptive and poignant novel that will linger in readers’ minds for a long while.

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