The protagonist, Summer—a 16-year-old high school student in Long Thorpe, England, who is abducted during an evening out with girlfriends. While the police initially think she ran away, her family, friends, and Lewis—her boyfriend—know differently. They take to the streets daily during a six-month period searching for Summer. Lewis focuses on willing her to be found alive and come home to him.
In the meantime, Summer (now named Lily) is “home” in a cellar with three other girls—Rose, Poppy, and Violet. The girls are only known by their flower names, given to them by their captor. Unfortunately, Summer is not the first Lily to join the family. There have been others. Summer soon learns that if she is stay alive, she must embody Lily and abide by the rules or be violently killed.
By day, their captor is Colin, a normal, boring accountant, who goes to work and does his job. But he returns to his house of horrors as Clover, an over-the-top OCD, who has devised the ultimate family experience. He surrounds himself with what he perceives as love and attention of the four girls, never allowing them to leave the confines of a basement that he has transformed into a home. He provides them with modern conveniences, such as a kitchen, minus knives and sharp objects; a sitting room with a television, minus cable; a bedroom with four beds; and a bathroom. He supplies them with books to read, movies to watch, and food to cook. He even provides identical clothing for them, but each must wear the color of their flower. But Colin expects his “flowers” to abide by his rules, bathing twice a day and having meals ready at a specified time. Additionally, he rapes one of them each evening during the week, simulating the sexual closeness and intimacy of a husband and wife.
Preston uses the first person narration of Summer, Lewis, and Clover throughout the novel. The outset of the novel is set in the year 2011, but Preston shifts time through flashbacks through Summers’ and Clover’s narrations. Through this, Preston illuminates Summer’s anxiety to the sexual situation of her capture as she flashes back to her first kiss with Lewis, as well as her first sexual experience with him. On the other hand, Preston provides a back story for Clover as his flashbacks reveal his childhood, his bizarre relationship with his now dead mother, and his obsession for a perfect family. Preston connects Summer’s and Clover’s narration through Lewis’ first-person viewpoint of physically searching for Summer and digging through facts and research until he finds her abductor.
Ultimately, Preston delves into the psyche of a killer as well as his prey. Preston shows that Clover’s dysfunctional childhood formed his opinions of the perfect family. His delusions along with his need for perfection and killing pulls the reader into the world of a psychopath.
On the other hand, Preston demonstrates how trauma changes a person through the reuniting of Summer and Lewis. Summer has a hard time assimilating back into her life because she has made a family of her own…one of survival during her six months in captivity. Once found, she craves the others girls’ company. But they, too, have their own demons to wrestle. One is killed during the rescue from the cellar. Another can’t find her way back to her life before the cellar and ends her story the only way she knows how. The remaining girl and Summer form a life-long connection, truly becoming family in the end.