The search for love and trust are the central themes in the book, most clearly shown in the central character Jeff's experiences. Consumed by longing for the love of the manipulative mother who continually shuns him, Jeff learns over the course of years what love truly is, and discovers it for himself in the constancy of his father and the welcoming household of the Tillermans.
The book is rich in imagery drawn from the Atlantic coastal areas. An example is when Jeff mulls over the consequences of his action of directly rejecting his mother, the responsibility for that action buzzing "around his head like birds - like sea gulls in a flock, squabbling in midflight about some morsel of food" (Ch.11). Another especially notable image is that of the solitary blue heron, "always alone", like Jeff during his long summers spent longing for his mother's attention (Ch.5).
The story is told from a third-person limited point of view from Jeff's perspective. Situational irony is evident in Melanie's frequent protestations of love for her son and the disadvantaged of the world, as contrasted with her actions, which are consistently selfish. An example of foreshadowing occurs when Melanie leaves after Jeff tells her he doesn't love her. When she is gone, Jeff "lies" that he is fine and the Professor says that he is too, "without confidence". It is clear Melanie is not done wreaking havoc with their lives and souls (Ch.10).