Laurel Mack is attracted to bright, uncomplicated people. She adores her mother for her girlish enthusiasm, she chose Paul Mack as her husband, for his goodness and gentleness, and her favourite of her three children - although of course no parent would ever have a favourite - is sunshiney Ellie, the golden girl. Laurel describes herself as a half-glass-empty person, the type of woman who "could find much to complain about in even the most pleasant of scenarios and condense the joy of good news into a short-lived moment, quickly curtailed by some new bothersome concern." But she is a good mother and a good wife and despite her natural tendency towards pessimism, she has enough bright people in her life to balance her out. But when her special girl, Ellie, disappears a week before her GCSE’s, all the things she had once found 'bothersome' fade into insignificance and all she is left with is a husband who she now perceives to be 'too nice', flaky son Jake who, seeing no place for himself in his mother’s home, drifts away into an intense relationship with a girl in the west county, and a strained relationship with her eldest daughter Hanna, who she describes as "her middle child. The difficult one. The tiring one. The one she wouldn’t want to be stranded on a desert island with".
Without Ellie around to buoy her up, and with her mother losing the will to live after a stroke leaves her in an old people’s home unable to speak properly, Laurel soon loses her grip on the life she’d spent so long building. She lets it fall apart around her, culminating in her letting her husband walk away and into the arms of another – much nicer – woman, without even really registering that it has happened.
Laurel builds a new world for herself, outside her splintered family. She buys a soulless flat and finds a soulless job and maintains a few peripheral relationships. Each week she cleans her daughter Hanna’s flat for her. It is the only way she can find to compensate for not caring for her properly in the wake of Ellie’s disappearance. She visits her mother once a week and talks her out of wanting to die. And that is how she copes with the terrible, endless, grinding agony of having lost her golden girl. Day by day. Minute by minute. No plans for the future. No connection to the past. She is completely numb.
So when one afternoon, shortly after finally burying her daughter’s remains, she meets a handsome mathematician in a coffee shop and finds herself responding positively to his attempts to flirt with her, she thinks that this is somehow a sign that she is ‘moving on’. "She catches herself for a moment. Sitting in a café in the middle of the afternoon, talking to a strange man, laughing at his jokes. How has this happened? This day, of all the days, all the hundreds of dark days that have passed since Ellie went? Is this what happens when you finally bury your child?"
As it transpires, the meeting was not a coincidence, and the stranger’s attempts to woo her were much more sinister than she could ever have imagined. But there and then Laurel allows herself to stop grieving for long enough to open herself up to something else, maybe to acknowledge that she still has a future to build for and that her relationships with her children are still salvageable.
In a twisted way it is Floyd who saves Laurel from a brittle, pointless existence. But it is Laurel who finds the strength to shine.