The distinct pleasure of summer reading comes from leaving the sweltering sunlight outside and diving into an engaging novel set somewhere far away and, preferably, cool.
Kansas City native Ashley Ream’s second novel, “The 100 Year Miracle,” which takes place on a rainy Pacific Northwest island in December, provides such a respite, with a little more gravitas and intellectual curiosity than your stereotypical “beach read.”
The story follows a cast of characters over the course of a week during the “Miracle” of the title: a once-a-century biological phenomenon that turns the sea a brilliant, glowing green.
Biochemist Rachel Bell is one of a team of scientists drawn to the island to study the tiny bioluminescent creatures responsible. She is also on a quest of her own, to harness the creatures’ legendary properties to develop her own miracle drug, something she hopes will save her from the chronic pain eating away at her life.
Meanwhile, Tilda, who has recently lost her seat in the U.S. Senate, arrives back on the island to care for her ex-husband Harry, a composer dying of a neurodegenerative condition. Searching for a new purpose in life, Tilda strikes up an unlikely romantic fling and works on restoring an old sailboat.
When Harry and Rachel’s paths cross, she gives him some of her drug — as much to collect data as to help him. As both of them physically improve, they begin to deteriorate psychologically. Harry sees visions of his daughter who died in childhood, while Rachel becomes increasingly paranoid and self-destructive.
Tilda and Rachel are both well-drawn, sympathetic point-of-view characters. But their stories never quite entwine as tightly as they should. The book could have used one or two fewer lines of inquiry. As it stands, we explore biology, Native American legend, pain, suffering, death, guilt, sailboats, food and scientific ethics, and too many of the story’s strands are left dangling on their own.
With a blurb by Gillian Flynn on the cover, the novel presents itself as a type of mystery or thriller, but the suspenseful elements only show up in the last quarter of the book, and seem to appear rather abruptly.
The book’s strength, aside from its characters, is setting. Olloo’et Island and its little town — from the coffee shop and bistro catering to affluent gentrifiers and tourists to the abandoned YMCA camp where the scientists sleep in shifts — have a real, lived-in texture. The cold rain and Harry’s multistory house that overlooks the glowing beach stick in the mind longer than the plot.
The book asks relevant and interesting questions about scientific pursuits and their tradeoffs. Readers looking for a lasting sense of meaning may be disappointed, but those looking for an atmospheric escape from long days with triple-digit temperatures will find things to like.
“The 100 Year Miracle,” by Ashley Ream (Flatiron Books; 310 pages; $26.99)