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Forty-eight-year-old Nantucketer Dabney Kimball Beech has always had a gift for matchmaking. Some call her ability mystical, while others, her husband, celebrated economist John Boxmiller Beech, and her daughter, Agnes, who is clearly engaged to the wrong man, call it meddlesome. But there's no arguing with her results: With 42 happy couples to her credit and all of them still together, Dabney has never been wrong about romance.
Never, that is, except in the case of herself and Clendenin Hughes, the green-eyed boy who took her heart with him long ago when he left the island to pursue his dream of becoming a journalist. Now, after spending twenty-seven years on the other side of the world, Clen is back on Nantucket, and Dabney has never felt so confused, or so alive.
But when tragedy threatens her own second chance, Dabney must face the choices she's made and share painful secrets with her family. Determined to make use of her gift before it's too late, she sets out to find perfect matches for those she loves most.
Dabney couldn’t believe it. She blinked twice, thinking she no longer had the eyes of a girl or even a young woman, thinking she hadn’t been feeling well lately, and was this a trick of her mind? Twenty-seven years later? Subject line: Hello.
Dabney Kimball Beech, who had served as the director of the Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce for twenty-two years, was in her second-floor office, overlooking historic, cobblestoned Main Street. It was late April, the Friday morning of Daffodil Weekend, Dabney’s second-most-important weekend of the year, and the forecast was a springtime fantasy. It was sixty degrees and sunny today and would be sixty-four and sunny on Saturday and Sunday.
Dabney had just checked the weather for the fifth time that day, the five thousandth time that week (the year before, Daffodil Weekend had been ruined by a late-season snowstorm), when the e-mail from Clendenin Hughes appeared in her in-box.
Subject line: Hello.
“Oh my God,” Dabney said.
Dabney never swore, and rarely took the Lord’s name in vain (thanks to cayenne pepper administered to her ten-year-old tongue by her devoutly Catholic grandmother for saying the word jeez). That she did so now was enough to get the attention of Nina Mobley, Dabney’s assistant for eighteen of the past twenty-two years.
“What?” Nina said. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Dabney said quickly. Nina Mobley was Dabney’s closest friend, but Dabney could never tell her that an e-mail from Clendenin Hughes had just popped onto her screen.
Dabney gnawed on one of her pearls, as was her habit when she was deeply concentrating, and now she nearly bit clear through it. She was aware that millions of people across the world were receiving e-mails at that moment, a good percentage of them probably upsetting, a smaller but still substantial percentage probably shocking. But she wondered if anyone anywhere on the planet was receiving an e-mail as upsetting and shocking as this one.
She stared at the screen, blinked, clenched the pearl between her teeth. It was grainy, which was how one judged authenticity. Hello. Hello? Not a word for twenty-seven years—and then this. An e-mail at work. Hello. When Clen had left for Thailand, e-mail hadn’t existed. How had he gotten her address? Dabney laughed. He was a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist; finding her e-mail address wouldn’t have presented much of a challenge.
Dabney’s finger tapped the mouse lightly, a tease. Would she open the e-mail? What would it say? What could it possibly say after twenty-seven years of silence?
Dabney could not open the e-mail. She, who never smoked and rarely drank hard liquor, wanted a cigarette and a shot of bourbon. The only thing that would have stunned her more than this was an e-mail from her mother.
Her mother was dead.
Dabney felt like she was being electrocuted right down to her bone marrow.
Nina was at her own computer, sucking on her gold cross, a bad habit that had traveled by osmosis across the four feet between their desks.
Nina said, “Dabney, really, what is it?”
Dabney let her pearls fall from her mouth; they thumped against her chest like they were made of lead. She had not been feeling right for weeks, maybe as long as a month, and now her body was really going haywire. The e-mail from Clendenin Hughes.
Dabney forced a smile at Nina. “The weather this weekend is going to be perfect!” she said. “We are going to have guaranteed sun.”
“After last year,” Nina said, “we deserve it.”
Dabney said, “I’m going to run to the pharmacy for a frappe. Do you want anything?”
Nina furrowed her brow. “Frappe?” She glanced at the wall calendar, theirs each year courtesy of Nantucket Auto Body. “Is it that time of the month again already?”
Dabney wished she weren’t so predictable, but of course predictability was her trademark. She got a frappe only once a month, the day before her period was due, which was still ten days off.
“I just feel like it today for some reason,” Dabney said. “Do you want anything?”
“No, thank you,” Nina said. She gave Dabney an extra beat of her attention. “You okay?”
Dabney swallowed. “I’m fine,” she said.
Outside, the atmosphere was festive. After four cold, punishing months, spring had arrived on Nantucket. Main Street was teeming with people wearing yellow. Dabney spied the Levinsons (Couple #28), whom she had introduced ten years earlier. Larry had been a widower with twins at Yale and Stanford, Marguerite a never-married headmistress at a prestigious girls’ boarding school. Larry wore a yellow cashmere sweater and a pair of kelly-green corduroy pants, and Marguerite was in a yellow poplin blazer; she held the leash of their golden retriever, Uncle Frank. Dabney adored all dogs, and especially Uncle Frank, and Larry and Marguerite were one of “her couples,” married only because she had introduced them. Dabney knew she should stop and talk; she should rub Uncle Frank under the muzzle until he sang for her. But she couldn’t fake it right now. She crossed the street to Nantucket Pharmacy, but did not go inside. She headed down Main Street, through the A&P parking lot, to the Straight Wharf. At the end of the Straight Wharf, she gazed at the harbor. There was Jack Copper, working on his charter fishing boat; in another few weeks, summer would arrive in all its crazy glory. Jack waved, and Dabney, of course, waved back. She knew everyone on this island, but there was no one in the world she could tell about this e-mail. It was Dabney’s to grapple with alone.
Dabney could see the Steamship, low in the water, rounding Brant Point. In the next hour, the Chamber office would be inundated with visitors, and Dabney had left Nina all alone. Furthermore, she had left the office without “signing out” on the “log,” which was the one thing Vaughan Oglethorpe, president of the board of directors of the Chamber, absolutely required. Dabney needed to turn around right this second and go back to the office and do the job that she had been doing perfectly for the past two decades.
Subject line: Hello.
Three hours later, she opened it. She hadn’t planned on opening it at all, but the urge to do so mounted until it was physically painful. Dabney’s back and lower abdomen ached; knowledge of this e-mail was tearing her up inside.
I wanted to let you know that I am on my way back to Nantucket for an indefinite period of time. I suffered a pretty serious loss about six months ago, and I’ve been slow recovering from it. Furthermore, it’s monsoon season, and my enthusiasm for writing about this part of the world has dwindled. I’ve given the Times my notice. I never did get assigned to the Singapore desk. I was close several years ago, but—as ever—I pissed off the wrong person simply by speaking my mind. Singapore will remain a dream deferred. (Big sigh.) I’ve decided that the best thing is for me to come home.
I have respected your long-ago mandate to “never contact [you] again.” More than a quarter century has passed, Cupe. I hope that “never” has an expiration date and that you will forgive me this e-mail. I didn’t want to show up on the island without giving you advance warning, and I didn’t want you to hear the news from anyone else. I will be caretaking the house of Trevor and Anna Jones, 436 Polpis Road, living in their guest cottage.
I am afraid of both saying too much and not saying enough. First and foremost, I want you to know how sorry I am for the way things ended. They didn’t have to be that way, but I categorized it a long time ago as an IMPOSSIBLE SITUATION: I could not stay, and you could not go. Not a day has gone by—honestly, Cupe, not an hour—when I have not thought of you. When I left, I took a part of you with me, and I have treasured that part these many years.
I am not the same person you knew—not physically, not mentally, not emotionally. But, of course, I am ever the same.
I would very much like to see you, although I realize this is almost too much to hope for.
I am writing this from my layover at LAX. If all goes well, I should be back on Nantucket tomorrow morning.
436 Polpis Road, cottage in the back.
Ever yours, Clen
Dabney read the e-mail again, to make sure her addled brain had understood.
Couple #1: Phil and Ginger (née O’Brien) Bruschelli, married twenty-nine years
Ginger: It would have been presumptuous of me to call myself Dabney’s best friend, because even in 1981, freshman year, Dabney was the most popular girl in the school. When I say “popular,” you might be thinking she was blond, or a cheerleader, or that she lived in a big house on Centre Street. No, no, no—she had straight thick brown hair cut into a bob, and she always, always wore a headband. She had big brown eyes, a few freckles, and a smile like the sun coming out. She was about five-three and she had a cute little body, but she never showed it off. She wore either cable-knit sweaters and kilts or a beat-up pair of Levi’s and an oversize men’s oxford shirt. She had the shirt in four colors: white, blue, pink, and peach. She always wore penny loafers, and she always wore a strand of pearls and pearl earrings. That was Dabney.
Dabney Kimball was the most popular girl in the school because she was genuinely kind to everyone. She was kind to Jeffrey Jackson, who had a port-wine stain on his face; she was kind to Henry Granger, who started wearing wingtips and carrying a briefcase in second grade. She included everyone in planning events like Homecoming floats and December Delight. She had grown up an only child raised by her father, Lieutenant Kimball, who was a police officer. Her mother was… well, no one knew exactly what had happened to her mother. A couple of different stories had circulated, as gossip does, but all we knew for sure was that Dabney no longer had a mother, which made us love her even more.
Dabney was also smarter than everyone else at Nantucket High School, except for Clendenin Hughes, who was what our English teacher, Mr. Kane, called a “hundred-year genius.” Dabney was probably a ninety-nine-year genius.
Freshman year, Dabney and I were fledglings on the yearbook committee. The committee was mostly upperclassmen—it was, actually, all upperclassmen, except for the two of us. Dabney felt that, despite our lowly status, freshmen should be represented just like the other three classes, and that no one was going to look out for us if we didn’t look out for ourselves. So that winter, Dabney and I hung out a lot. We would go to yearbook meetings every Tuesday and Thursday after school, and when we were finished, we would watch the boys’ varsity basketball team.
I had a huge, horrible crush on Phil Bruschelli. Phil was a sophomore, and in the varsity games he mostly sat on the bench. If the team was ahead by more than twenty points, Phil would go in for a few minutes. One such time when this happened, I grabbed Dabney’s arm in excitement.
I’ll never forget the look on her face. It was what I’ll now call amused recognition. She said, “You like him. You like Phil.”
“No, I don’t,” I said. Because even though Dabney and I were practically best friends, my crush on Phil wasn’t a secret I was willing to share.
“Yes,” she said. “You do. I can see it. You’re all… pink.”
“Of course I’m pink,” I said. “It’s a hundred degrees in here and I’m Irish.”
“Not your face, silly,” Dabney said. “Your, I don’t know, your aura is rosy.”
“My aura?” I said. “Rosy?”
After the game, Dabney insisted that I wait with her in the hallway outside the boys’ locker room. Her father was coming to pick her up, she said.
“Why aren’t you walking?” I asked. Dabney lived right across the street from the school.
“Just wait with me,” Dabney said. And then she pushed my hair back off my shoulders and flipped up the collar of my IZOD shirt. She was so close to me I could have counted her freckles.
I said, “How come you don’t have a boyfriend? You’re so pretty and everyone likes you.”
She said, “I do have a boyfriend. He just doesn’t know it yet.”
I wanted to ask her whom she meant, but at that instant Phil Bruschelli walked out of the locker room, all six foot three of him. His dark hair was still damp from the shower and he was wearing a dark-brown shearling jacket. I nearly fainted away, he was so cute.
Dabney stepped into his path. “Hey there, Phil.”
Phil stopped. “Hey, Dabney.”
Dabney said, “Nice that you got a little playing time today. Varsity game, you must be psyched.”
He shrugged. “Yeah, whatever. Coach says I have to pay my dues. Wait until next year.”
Dabney pulled me close to her side. “You know Ginger, right, Phil? Ginger O’Brien? We’re doing yearbook together.”
Phil smiled at me. My vision blurred. I teetered. Smile! I thought. Smile back! But it felt like I was going to cry instead.
Phil said, “You serve at church, right? You’re an altar girl?”
I felt flames of embarrassment licking my cheeks. Rosy indeed. I nodded, and then made a chirping noise like a sparrow. Who wanted to be recognized as an altar girl? And yet, I was an altar girl, and I had been since I was ten years old. It wasn’t exactly a secret.
Phil said, “My mother makes me go to Mass once a month, and I see you there whenever I go.”
“I’m not surprised you noticed Ginger,” Dabney said. “She’s gorgeous.” With that, Dabney hooked her arm around my neck and kissed my scorching-hot cheek. “See ya, gotta go! My dad is here!”
She bounded out the door to the back parking lot, but her father wasn’t waiting. Lieutenant Kimball drove a squad car, which I would have noticed. There were no cars waiting. Dabney was walking home, abandoning me at a time when I needed her to prop me up. I decided I would never forgive her.
But then Phil asked if I liked basketball and I said yes, and he asked if I wanted to come watch him play for the JV team the following afternoon, and I said sure. He said he would have a lot more playing time in that game, and I said, Okay, great. And he said, Well, I’ll see you tomorrow, don’t forget me! And I felt like a flock of birds had startled in my chest.
Phil and I have been married for twenty-nine years and we have four beautiful sons, the youngest of whom plays power forward for Villanova University.
Dabney left the Chamber office at four-thirty as usual. All preparations for Daffodil Weekend were in place; Dabney could have organized it in her sleep—thank goodness—because her afternoon had been consumed with rereading Clen’s e-mail and then obsessing about it.
I suffered a pretty serious loss about six months ago, and I’ve been slow recovering from it.
What kind of loss? Dabney wondered. Had he lost a good friend, a lover? Dabney had lost her father from a heart attack a decade earlier, and her beloved chocolate Lab, Henry, had died at the age of seventeen, just before Christmas. But neither of these losses compared with the loss of Clendenin.
Not a day has gone by—honestly, Cupe, not an hour—when I have not thought of you.
She would be lying if she said that she had not thought of him, too. The love of her life, her perfect match, her Meant to Be. The father of her child. How it had pained her to break off contact. But years and years later, Dabney was stunned by the wisdom and maturity of her decision.
The only way I am going to survive is with a clean break. Please respect my wishes and let me, and this child, go. Please, Clendenin Tabor Hughes, do me the favor of never contacting me again.
He had been so, so angry. He had called Dabney in the middle of the night, and over the staticky, time-delayed phone line, they had screamed at each other for the first time in their relationship, often stepping on each other’s words until Clen ended the call by saying, We all make choices, and slamming down the phone. But he had let her do things her way. He had not contacted her.
IMPOSSIBLE SITUATION: I could not stay, and you could not go.
That was about the size of it.
Despite this, Dabney had thought Clendenin might appear at the hospital when she gave birth. She had thought he might materialize in the back of the church on the afternoon she married Box and, just like in the movies, interrupt the priest at the critical moment. She had thought he might attend Agnes’s first piano recital, or show up at Dabney’s fortieth birthday party, at the Whaling Museum. She had thought he might come back to the island when his mother, Helen, died—but Helen Hughes had been cremated and there was no service.
Dabney had always thought he might come back.
If all goes well, I should be back on Nantucket tomorrow morning.
Dabney walked home from work, wishing it were a weekday so that she would have the house to herself, time and space to think. Dabney’s husband, John Boxmiller Beech—Box, to his familiars—held an endowed chair in economics at Harvard and spent four nights a week in Cambridge, teaching. Box was fourteen years older than Dabney, sixty-two now, his hair gone completely white. He was a brilliant scholar, he was witty at dinner parties, he had nurtured Dabney’s intellect and saved her in a million ways. Not least of all, he had saved her from the memories of Clendenin Hughes decades earlier. Box had adopted Agnes when Agnes was only three years old. He had been awkward with her at first—he had never wanted children of his own—but as Agnes grew, Box enjoyed teaching her how to play chess and quizzing her about European capital cities. He groomed her to go to Harvard and was disappointed when she chose Dartmouth instead, but he was the one who had driven back and forth to Hanover—sometimes through ferocious snowstorms—because Dabney wouldn’t leave the island unless her life depended on it.
Tomorrow morning. It was Friday, which meant that Box was at their house on Charter Street. He would be Dabney’s escort all through the festivities of Daffodil Weekend, although he was slower now after his knee replacement, and he had a hard time with the name of anyone he hadn’t known for twenty years. Box would be working, and therefore distracted, but if Dabney knocked on the door of his study, he would set down his pen and turn down the Mozart and he would listen as Dabney spoke the words he had surely been dreading for more than twenty years.
I’ve had an e-mail from Clendenin Hughes. He’s coming back to Nantucket for an indefinite period of time. He’s arriving tomorrow morning.
What would Box say? Dabney couldn’t imagine. She had been honest with Box since the day she’d met him, but she decided, while walking home, that she wouldn’t tell him about Clen. She revised history so that she had deleted the e-mail without reading it, and then she deleted it from her deleted file, which meant it was gone, so gone that it was as if it had never existed in the first place.
Couple #8: Albert Maku and Corrine Dubois, married twenty-two years
Albert: Dabney Kimball was the first person I met at Harvard. She was sitting on the side steps of Grays Hall, crying her eyes out. All the other freshmen were carrying their trunks and boxes across Harvard Yard with their good-looking, well-dressed parents and their rambunctious brothers and sisters in tow. I watched people hug and scream—happy reunion!—they had gone to Camp Wyonegonic together, they had been bitter lacrosse rivals, one at Gilman, one at Calvert Hall, they had sailed together from Newport to Bermuda, they had skied in Gstaad—it just got more and more absurd, and I could not listen a second longer without feeling woefully displaced. I was from Plettenberg Bay, South Africa—my father a truck driver, my mother the head of housekeeping at a tourist hotel, my tuition at Harvard paid by a scholarship through the United Church of Christ. I did not belong in Grays Hall, at Harvard, in Cambridge, in America. I slipped out the side door with the intention of escape—back to the T-station, back to Logan Airport, back to Cape Town.
But then I saw Dabney crying, and I thought, Now, look, Albert, there is someone else at Harvard who seems as miserable as you. I sat down on the hot step and offered her a handkerchief. My mother had sent me half a world away, to the planet’s most prestigious university, armed with little more than a dozen white pressed handkerchiefs.
The first white handkerchief won me my first friend. Dabney accepted it, and unceremoniously blew her nose. She did not seem surprised by my presence, despite the fact that I was six foot six and weighed 165 pounds and had skin the same purple-black color as the plums sold by the fruit vendor in Harvard Square.
When she finished blowing her nose, she folded the handkerchief into a neat, damp square and laid it on her dungaree-covered knee.
“I’ll launder this before I give it back,” she said. “I’m Dabney Kimball.”
“Albert,” I said. “Albert Maku, from Plettenberg Bay, South Africa.” And then, as a flourish, I said, “Ngiyajabula ukukwazi,” which means, “It’s nice to meet you,” in Zulu.
She burst into tears again. I thought maybe the Zulu had frightened her and I made a mental note not to use this tactic ever again when introducing myself to someone in America.
“What’s the matter?” I said. “Are you lonely? Are you scared?”
She looked at me and nodded.
I said, “Yes, me too.”
Later, we walked to Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage. This was a famous burger place mentioned in the freshman handbook. We ordered burgers with onions and chili sauce and cheese and pickles and fried eggs, and we ordered fries with gravy, and as I ate I thought happily that this was American food, and I loved it.
Dabney Kimball had been born and raised on Nantucket Island, which was sixty miles away on land and another thirty over the sea. She told me she was the fifth generation of her family to be born on the island, and I understood that for an American, this was an accomplishment. Her great-great-great-grandfather had traveled to Nantucket when he was only newly graduated from Harvard himself.
Dabney didn’t like to leave the island, because of something that had happened when she was a child, she said.
“Oh, really?” I said. “What?”
I thought maybe she had been mugged or had been in a highway accident, but she pressed her lips together and I realized I had probably overstepped the bounds of our brand-new friendship by asking.
“There is no university on Nantucket,” she said. “Otherwise, I would have matriculated there.” She picked at the last remaining fries, swimming in gravy. “It’s a phobia. I leave the island and I panic. I only feel safe when I’m on that island. It’s my home.”
I told her my home was Plettenberg Bay, and that I had not, until two days earlier, ever been out of South Africa. But Plettenberg Bay wasn’t an island, and I had traveled around the country quite a bit with the choir of my church youth group—to Cape Town, Knysna, Stellenbosch, and Franschhoek, to Jo-burg and Pretoria, the capital, and to the fine beaches of Durban. Compared to Dabney, I felt worldly.
“Also,” she said, “I’m in love with a boy named Clendenin Hughes. He goes to Yale, and I’m afraid I’m going to lose him.”
Ah, she had me there. At that time, I knew nothing about love.
Dabney and I remained friends for all four years at Harvard. She went home to Nantucket each weekend and over the span of each school vacation, and every time she left for home, she invited me to come with her. I had an idea of Nantucket as a white place, an expensive place, an elitist place, and despite the fact that someone as fine as Dabney lived there, I felt that a painfully lean, dirt-poor African boy with purple-black skin on a church scholarship would not be welcomed, and I always said no.
But then finally, during spring break of senior year, when I had been accepted at medical school at Columbia Physicians and Surgeons, and I had a pocket full of money from working as a bellman at the Charles Hotel, and my self-confidence was plumped not only by my future as a doctor and ample pocket cash but by the realization that I had become sort of American (I enjoyed movies with the actor Mickey Rourke, I drank the occasional beer at the Rathskeller), I said that yes, I would go.
- “Hilderbrand has crafted another of her delectable beach reads, complete with a fairy-tale romance. . . . Delicious.”—Booklist
- “Charming, poignant…Hilderbrand's narrative is thoroughly readable, with likable heroes and believably despicable antagonists…Hilderbrand's story is an engaging read.”—Publishers Weekly
- "The odd thing about The Matchmaker is that I fell for it, not because of the love triangle or Dabney’s matchmaking skills, but because it’s a loving portrait of an island. Hilderbrand has an ear and an eye for the people of Surfside and Siasconset . . . It’s like renting a cottage on Nantucket for the weekend — breezy and sad when you come to the end. The Matchmaker gives you a taste of island life without having to invest in oceanfront property.”—Boston Globe
- “My favorite read of the summer so far.”—Detroit Free Press
- “With the idyllic island setting and her eye for details, her books make you want to plan a trip to Nantucket even before you’ve turned the last page. Her stories are always chockfull of relatable characters and situations, sprinkled with a little bit of escapist fantasy for good measure. Like a good summer barbeque, there’s something for everyone here….So get a nice comfy chair in a shady place and dive in!”—The Book Reporter
- “If the beach isn’t on your agenda this summer, the novel will transport you to Nantucket’s picturesque seaside in no time. Elin, who lives on the island, delivers an emotional story about a married woman with a knack for matchmaking.”—Hello! Magazine
- “The queen regent of the easy-breezy summer read.”—New York Post
- On Sale
- Nov 23, 2021
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Back Bay Books