Memoirs of a Shape-Shifter
Hard cover, dust jacket, 6 x 9, 440 pgs.
Season: Fall, 2005
Plot summary (long)
The book opens at the funeral of Ernest Eveless, the richest fishing-fleet owner in Gloucester, Mass. Nikki Helmik, forty, the bookís protagonist, stands a little way off and witnesses her old friend Rose Eveless, Ernestís widow, and Roseís son Philip, recently arrived from France where he has lived for the past thirty years, ever since being sent away by his parents. Nikki and Philip had been schoolmates in the fifth grade, and Nikki recognizes him. She reminisces, however, about the recent death, by alcohol, of her own father, and she thinks about her love for Ernest—a love both acknowledged but that never came to more than an infatuated kiss. Nikki remembers when she arrived, two months prior, at her fatherís house, only to witness him having a heart attack. She ran away, arriving at Rose and Ernestís house, there to be consoled by Ernest. When she returned home, her fatherís corpse was being carried out.
Nikkiís relationship with Rose is equally complex and problematic. Rose Eveless, daughter of Portuguese fishermen, is the most beautiful and most powerful woman in Gloucester and the idol of all the Gloucester schoolgirls. It chanced that Nikki, the child of a Finnish father and a mother of Irish descent, became attached to Rose, and Rose took Nikki under her wing, teaching her all the arts of seduction and love of power. Nikki subsequently moved to Boston, became a lawyer, had a daughter and no husband, and upon her fatherís death, has now returned to Gloucester to live in her parentsí old house.
Two months after Ernestís funeral, Nikki attends a party at her friend Claireís house and there meets Philip. They become lovers in spite of the fact that he is married to a French woman who is in France. The relationship, extremely problematic for both, is stormy, culminating in Philipís falling from a cliff overlooking the sea.
Rose calls Nikki and offers her a deal: she is angry at Nikkiís betrayal but will allow Nikki to see Philip again if she will find a certain lost journal for Rose—a journal that was written by an ancestor of Nikki, a Druid princess by the name of Anne Cleves. In the journal is the recipe for a potion to give everlasting beauty, and Rose wants it. In addition, Rose owns a development company and is about to begin construction in Dogtown, a vast forested preserve (an actual place in the center of the high ground in Gloucester). This offends Nikki deeply; her own house backs up to the forest, where she played as a girl. Rose offers not to build in Dogtown—since her real reason was to use excavation as a means for looking for the journal—provided Nikki find the journal and bring Rose the recipe for the potion.
Nikki concludes Rose is mad and leaves, but she goes to her Aunt Meg, her motherís sister, in Salem, Mass. There she is given a letter from her own mother telling her that indeed she is the descendant of Anne Cleves. Nikkiís mother explains that all the women in their family are descendants and as such are heirs to certain healing lore and powers. Aunt Meg, who herself practices crystal ball gazing in her witch-like shop in Salem, confirms that Rose is right; there is, so the story goes, a journal by Anne Cleves, never found. She encourages Nikki to visit Clarissa Barrow, a member of the Druid Raven clan—the biological and spiritual descendants of Anne Cleves—for help in finding the journal. But there is a problem: Meg informs Nikki that Clarissa was Ernest Evelessí mistress for many years, and so Nikki must overcome her moral objections in order to visit Clarissa.
Clarissa lives on the other side of Dogtown from Nikki. Dogtown is a forested preserve where so-called witches once lived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Clarissa initiates Nikki in hunting and tracking, and through Clarissaís teaching she at last finds the journal. Told by Clarissa to look for an insane and poetic old man, Joe, who lives in a cave in the wood, Nikki is accosted by him; he offers his help in translating the journal.
Months go by, Philip convalescing in his motherís house, Nikki working on translation of the journal. She has been visited from the beginning by the ghosts of both her father and Ernest. Her work on the journal is itself a journey of growing poetic awareness, in the course of which she learns magic. Nikkiís completed translation of the journal, which comprises three independent chapters of the book, becomes Anneís story of magic and Druids and war taking place in New England of the late 1600s. Anne tells the story of her life in first-person: how her Raven clan emigrated from Ireland in 1200 to settle in what is now New Hampshire; how she received Druid training from her old teacher Ganieda; of the despoiling of her town by a rival tribe; the arrival of the Christian missionaries; her journey to Gloucester and her survival of the Salem witch trials. In the journal Nikki finds after all a potion for everlasting beauty, but it means death to take it.
The novel concludes on Halloween night, after Nikki has finished the translation. Although she has broken with Clarissa over Ernest and a matter of uncovered history, she receives a phone call from Clarissa who seems to know that Nikkiís work is finished. Clarissa invites Nikki to a midnight ceremony wherein she will be initiated into the Raven clan.
Events intervene… By the time Nikki returns home following initiation, her outlook has shifted and with it a resolve for some connection with Philip despite the difficulties. From the start she had difficulty with love because she always mistook it for power; discovering her ancestral powers meant nothing to her before but a way of gaining power. She has learned that it is quite otherwise: love may be the antithesis of power.