There’s something about a camp on the coast of Maine – the mingled scents of pine and seawater, the sharp briny salt of the food, the way the weather can go from sweating hot to a brisk chill in a few hours. The seagulls and the small boat engines. And the houses themselves, great ramshackle shingled beasts from another era, passed through generations.

Just such a house is the setting and center of Sarah Moriarty’s lyrical debut novel “North Haven.” The house and its future – and past – are the core here, around which a family regroups to try to understand loss and change.

It’s a family in the midst of a generational shift. The Willoughby clan has had losses, with the recent passing away of their mother and, three years earlier, their father. The two brothers and two sisters return over a long summer holiday weekend, but it will be their first visit without either parent there. The children are now the adults, and the challenges that accompany adulthood come head-to-head with the entrenched ways they treat each other as siblings.

Libby, the eldest sister, is struggling with being pulled in too many directions – she finds herself taking on responsibilities her mother had always handled, and she feels taken for granted by her siblings. She’s uptight and repressed, and is harboring a secret that she fears acknowledging either to herself or to her siblings.

Gwen also has a secret, though it’s not long held a secret from readers – living a promiscuous lifestyle has lead to an unplanned pregnancy, and she’s unsure whether or not she can honestly consider herself ready for the responsibilities of parenting.

Danny is the younger of the brothers and is hit hard by the loss of their mother. Depressed to the point of having thoughts of suicide, he has dropped out of college and needs desperately to be cared for without knowing how, or by whom. “Poor Danny,” Gwen thinks, “he just wanted a little more life and a little less death.”

Tom is the eldest sibling and also has a secret, but unlike Libby, his secret involves their parents, and he can’t decide if he should share it. Tom is also struggling with his own marriage, which, judging from how he treats the other people in his family, is probably past its expiration date.

Moriarty uses the secret about their parents as more of a backdrop to the siblings’ own issues than as a primary focus, which is disappointing. The patriarch and matriarch had some baggage, and what’s inside could have been explored more robustly to great effect.

Sarah Moriarty Photo by Kat Griffith

That said, Moriarty writes convincingly about the many interconnected complex moving parts involved in sibling relationships. They bicker, they snap, they know how to push each others’ buttons. They don’t always know how to comfort each other. When a stranger leaves a note, offering a large sum of money in exchange for the property, it’s a catalyst for them to step up their efforts in resolving unfinished business with each other.

“North Haven” doesn’t fit neatly into the stereotypical mold for a breezy summer beach read. The struggles of the family dominate, and the book recognizes that families don’t usually fit into neat hero/villain categories. We don’t find resolution to a problem; we find small resolutions to parts of problems, and the moving pieces are like a game of Tetris, or a Rubik’s Cube.

In its own way, the Willoughbys’ house is like the fifth sibling, the oldest child that does what it can to shield the younger ones through the innocent misadventures of childhood and the less innocent choices the adults make. In the end, the house grows up and moves, joins with another family, starts over. There are a lot of loose ends and ambiguity at the conclusion – much like life itself, which is admirable, but also frustrating. Sometimes we want the resolutions in books that we don’t get in our real lives.

Matt Tiffany is a mental health counselor and writer whose work has appeared in the Star Tribune, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Kansas City Star, Barnes & Noble Book Review and many other publications. He has always lived in Maine.