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Violet Clay finds her life interrupted when she suddenly receives news of her uncle's death by suicide. She decides to take a leave from her work illustrating book covers and travel to upstate New York, where he had lived.

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Violet's interactions with Uncle Ambrose's survivors include his ex-wife, whom she must tell of his death. As a creative person, Violet wonders about a novel that her uncle had been writing but apparently never finished.

This interest puts her in contact with his neighbor, Sam. From initially getting off on the wrong foot, they become close. Violet's desire to be a painter, which she had long suppressed as impractical, resurfaces. She finds herself motivated to pursue it in part through finding, in Sam, a model who embodies her subject. The tragedy of Ambrose's death thus sets in motion a new direction for both Violet and Sam.

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