Counting Chickens: A Martha’s Vineyard Novel by T. Elizabeth Bell, Pabodie Press, 2021, 417 pages, $15.95.

T. Elizabeth Bell’s new novel, Counting Chickens, lays out a familiar template, the return of the native, only with an irresistible Vineyard twist. Very often when Martha’s Vineyard sets its hook into somebody, that line will play out taut for years, no matter how far the person leaves the Island behind. Sometimes, as some readers out there know, the pull ends up winning. Sometimes the prodigal returns.

Such is the case with Remy Litchfield, Ms. Bell’s utterly charming main character in Counting Chickens. She’s returning to the Vineyard after a bitter failed marriage in Texas and a “dark January in Massachusetts” that consisted of sobbing on the phone to her mother, binging on Netflix and hiding under the covers.

Now back on the Island, she’s throwing herself into making a go of her high-end customized concierge service, Nest, which guarantees its customers a completely tailored Vineyard experience: shopping, trip planning, even baskets of eggs laid by her own chickens (in the book’s funniest running gimmick, Remy talks to them like they were high-maintenance Upper West Side children).

As much as she cares about it, Remy knows perfectly well that the concierge business isn’t rocket science. You do some shopping, some flower arranging, some reservation-making, fill out the right tax forms and, with persistence, you’ll have a business. 

Ms. Bell then takes this fragile optimism of Remy’s homecoming and adds the one element guaranteed to disrupt things: an old crush. Specifically, Jake Madden, an old flame who’s recently returned to the Island as well.

Then Ms. Bell adds two more twists. The first is that Jake makes a disastrous first impression when the two reunite (involving Thomas More and Wolf Hall, of all things), and the second is the presence of Eli Wolff, a super-wealthy enigmatic Nest client who’s increasingly making it clear he’d like to be something more than a customer for Remy, which throws her into turmoil.

“He’s a client,” says the good angel on one shoulder. “Sure, but he’s also yummy,” says the bad angel on the other.

And none of this is helped by the fact that Remy periodically wonders if she’s even made the right decision in starting her business in the first place. Between the haughty clients, the impossible demands and the unreliability of the work flow, she often thinks she’s kidding herself. “Was she wasting her talents, stuck in the box of thinking it was the only thing she could do?” she wonders at one point. “Yes, Remy was an excellent concierge. It paid well. But at what cost?”

Along with the furthering of these plot tangles, Ms. Bell also peppers the narrative with Vineyard details and a wonderfully atmospheric evocation of place. Most novels set on Martha’s Vineyard don’t quite manage this, certainly not to the degree seen here — the Vineyard in summer breathes in these pages. The shops, the shimmering mutability of the air, the private beaches and homes worthy of Architectural Digest, the ordinary people and the plutocratic mysteries like Eli Wolff living their secluded lives down sheltered country roads, Ms. Bell brings it all into warm, believable focus. Readers will be caught up in Remy’s story, but they’ll feel the magic of the Island as well.

“If this wasn’t the right way, at least there’d be something worthwhile to see at the end of the road,” Remy thinks at one point while she’s trying to follow a satellite map. “On Martha’s Vineyard, there always was.”

This will be marvelously familiar to Vineyard folk.

Counting Chickens is availabe at Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven and Edgartown Books.