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A Matter of Mercy
by Lynne Hugo

Published: 2014-08-01
Paperback : 278 pages
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Caroline Marcum thought she'd escaped the great mistake of her life by leaving Wellfleet harbor, but is forced to face it when she returns, reluctantly, to care for her dying mother. Ridley Neal put his past-and his prison term-behind him to return home to take over his father's oyster ...
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Caroline Marcum thought she'd escaped the great mistake of her life by leaving Wellfleet harbor, but is forced to face it when she returns, reluctantly, to care for her dying mother. Ridley Neal put his past-and his prison term-behind him to return home to take over his father's oyster and clam beds. Casual acquaintances long ago, when a nor'easter hits the coast, Rid and Caroline's lives intersect once again. When Rid and two other sea farmers are sued by the wealthy owners of vacation homes who want to shut them down, and Caroline accidentally meets the person she most wronged, they each must learn to trust-and love. Inspired by a 1996 lawsuit, A Matter of Mercy is a riveting novel about treasuring the traditional way of life in the shallows of beautiful Cape Cod bay by discovering where forgiveness ends and where it begins.

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~Chapter 1 ~

The dune fence between their house and the beach still tilted toward the water. It had always seemed an invitation to Caroline, like a gesturing hand, and as a child she’d been secretly glad when her father’s work to straighten it didn’t last. It had pointed to shiny afternoons at the edge of the shore with her mother. Later it pointed the way for her friends, teenagers gathering on summer nights around a driftwood fire to laugh and drink beer a boy had swiped from his parents. Recently though, since she’d come back, she’d imagined it pointed to an escape route. If she just stuck to the sand and walked west out of Wellfleet, she’d cross the bay beaches of Truro and end up in Provincetown. The passenger ferries to Boston left from the wharf there.

“I don’t see why you can’t go back to teaching,” Caroline’s mother said to her back. Strange how her voice could sound so weak, yet relentless, like a hungry kitten. “Can’t you apply for reinstatement? It’s been a long time.”

Caroline sighed and kept looking out through the picture window in the living room. At the shoreline, the water appeared distinct with separate white-lined laps, but toward the horizon it was the color of fog, sea merging into sky, one realm dimming into another in the aging day, just as her mother’s life was fading from this world into the next. A silent rise out of the slow breath of sleep—like the blurring of bay and sky—was how her mother’s life would likely end. That’s how Elsie, the hospice nurse, had described it when she explained the use of a morphine drip. When would be the time to say good-bye in that drifting scenario?

“Rake’s not out yet.” Caroline’s left forefinger examined the nails of her right hand as she spoke. “I’m surprised. The tide’s more than half-down.” She was trying not to revert to biting her nails by painting them Crystal Mauve. Eleanor used to say polish looked cheap on a woman, but the clay she worked would have made a mess of it, so Caroline attributed the opinion to suppressed envy. She’d thought of offering to paint her mother’s nails now, but what would that imply?

“You’re changing the subject. Will you look at me please?” her mother complained, and then couldn’t curtail herself. “Anyway, it’s not Rake there anymore. It’s The Junior.” Caroline heard the rest as if by telepathy: I told you, Rake is dead. “Came back to take over before Rake died. Settled right back home,” Eleanor said, the last meaning it’s past time you did the same. “Sure doesn’t look like his father, does he?” She paused and Caroline knew she was supposed to recall the image of the tough, skinny Jake, whose full moniker, Jake the Rake, had been a riff on his resemblance to the bull rake with which he harvested quahogs. “The Junior’s built like a brick shithouse.” Eleanor had abandoned prim language with no explanation after she was widowed.

“I wouldn’t know, Mom. I haven’t laid eyes on Rid, or any of those guys, since high school.”

“Never heard him called anything but The Junior,” Eleanor mused.

“By his parents. I doubt he appreciates it.”

“Pffft.” Eleanor brushed the notion off with a weak-wristed gesture. She pushed with her heels and wrists, trying to hike herself up in the bed, dislodging a pillow that landed with a whoof on the wood plank floor. A wheeled bedside stand, moved aside after she’d relented and taken a little applesauce, held an artful smattering of red, gold and pink dahlias Caroline had salvaged from the garden. They were the brightest color in a room of sparse oak dominated by an old stone fireplace. If there was any daylight at all, the eye was drawn to the view, which Eleanor always insisted was the decor.

Caroline left the window to pick up the pillow and resettle her mother who tried to shoo her away with bird-like hands, her bones a network of twigs scarcely covered.

“The Junior is a worker, though,” Eleanor pushed on, needing to make some point about a local. The day before she’d gone on about Tomas, the son of another of her retired friends who’d taken over for his parents. “I watched him yesterday. Got a brown dog that runs around the beach.”

“See? You do love being able to see the water,” Caroline said, a bit of I-knew-it in her voice, glad she’d persisted about moving the furniture around and having the delivery men put the hospital bed in the living room. Eleanor could hear the bay from her bedroom if the window was open, but couldn’t see it. Caroline sat next to her mother, but angled the straight-backed chair so she, too, could see the water.

“It’s holy to me,” Eleanor conceded. “The worst is leaving you and this place behind. I don’t know how you ever left.”

“You know I couldn’t stay after the accident.”

“People are better than you think,” Eleanor said. “There’s a time for leaving, I’ll give you that, but there’s also a time for coming home.”

“Mom, no one here is going to celebrate my return by killing the fatted calf. And this isn’t about me. I’m here for you. Anyway, what I don’t get is why someone would come back to work the flats, of all things.”

Eleanor’s eyes reddened with tears, which she did not try to wipe. After a pause, she said, “Rake worked up a … life … to leave The Junior.” She attempted an arm swoosh toward the window, though which the bay glinted. “Big call now for Wellfleet oysters. Quahogs, too. They fly ’em to New York and Chicago, all over. Charlotte said she heard there’s oysters going to Paris from right here. Best in the world. Right here.”

Not for the first time, Caroline wondered if dying was something her mother had arranged just to get her home. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. Do you find Caroline likable? Does your opinion of her change through the course of the novel? What about Rid?

2. One of the reasons Rid kept walking after his first night with Caroline was that he didn’t have any idea how he was “supposed” to respond. He muses to himself—what difference was it supposed to make that the child Caroline hit was deformed? Was it significant? If so, how and why?

3. What was your reaction to Terry? Were you sympathetic to John’s moving on? In Terry’s place, would you have confronted Caroline immediately instead of calling Boo or done the same thing?

4. How did you feel about the way Eleanor’s death was portrayed?

5. Did you agree with Tomas’ direction to Rid regarding not using a cell phone to call help for Mario when the three partners were out celebrating on Great Island ? Why or why not?

6. Although the novel is narrated from “close” or “tight” third person points of view, very frequently the reader knows a good deal more than the character in whose point of view the story is being told at any given time. One advance reviewer said he sometimes wanted to shake a character for his or her misjudgments. Did you have that reaction?

7. How do you see the setting as affecting the primary characters in A Matter of Mercy? Has the geography and culture of where you’re from affected you as deeply?

8. Did you agree with Rid or with Caroline about not pressing charges? Why?

9. There’s an article from The Cape Cod Times posted on www.LynneHugo.com (under Resources for Readers) that explains what happened after the close of the book between the owners of the shallows out to the low water mark and the upland home owners. What is your reaction to the behavior of the aquaculturists? Do you see anyone’s behavior—either the person originally bringing suit, or now, the aquaculturists, as selfish? Vengeful? Fair and right?

10. Mercy is an issue that’s variously raised in the book, both the gift of it and the withholding of it. Did this bring to mind any instances in your own life when you’ve either received or been denied mercy—or witnessed either?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

“Lynne Hugo’s novel A MATTER OF MERCY is full of intrigue and heart, as gritty as the inside of a clamshell and tender as a beach sunset. You won’t soon forget this story of two Cape Cod residents struggling against the tides for mercy and reaching out for each other despite the dark currents of their own pasts.” ~ Jenna Blum, New York Times and internationally bestselling author of THOSE WHO SAVE US, THE STORMCHASERS, and “The Lucky One” in GRAND CENTRAL.

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Member Reviews

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by Jenngbaker (see profile) 03/05/19

  "A Matter of Mercy"by nbaker (see profile) 08/30/17

Mercy is an act of forgiveness. This was a beautiful story of one’s woman quest to receive forgiveness for an act committed years ago – an act for which she paid time in prison but has ... (read more)

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