In the small town of Oxford, Maryland, watermen have been living for centuries on the crabs and oysters they harvest from the Chesapeake Bay. So when Will Tyler’s boat sinks in a winter accident, he survives only to find he’s lost his grip on his way of life.

As Will’s tension spills out at home, his wife Julia picks up the slack, determined to meet the needs of their 11-year-old daughter Emma. An imaginative, intense girl who has been sidelined by impending ear surgery, she is now facing a lonely, dry summer. After Julia plasters Emma’s photo around town to appeal for funds, Emma retreats further into a world of imagination and observation.

Merrill Young catches her eye almost immediately. An exotic, volatile woman who has returned to the town where her life began to shatter, she strikes Emma as an all-knowing vision from another world. After a shaky start, a deep friendship grows as these two outcasts offer each other trust and insight from either side of adulthood.

But Emma’s older brother Clyde has noticed Merrill too, and his idealism collides head-on with her emotional and sexual recklessness. Merrill both resists and relies on Clyde’s devotion as she presses him to admit his dark side. Captivated, Clyde begins to slip dangerously free of the identity to which he had moored himself.

As Emma begins to unravel the story of Merrill’s past, their friendship takes a dark turn and Julia intervenes. Soon relationships begin to collide, and discoveries abound in the Tyler household. When the family gathers after Emma's operation and Merrill makes a surprise appearance, Clyde lashes out with devastating results.

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