Abacus, Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Where or When’ by Anita Shreve


Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 242 pages; 1993.

Charles Callahan, a real estate agent and insurance salesman, is married with three children. One day he chances upon a newspaper advertisement for a new poetry book, which is accompanied by a photograph of the author. Charles is immediately transported back to another time and place, for he once had a summer romance with the author — Siân Richards — when the pair were on a Catholic camp as carefree, young 14-year-olds, but lost contact with her afterwards.

With a recession biting and the bank about to foreclose on his Rhode Island house, Charles decides to risk his marriage and stable family life too by getting in touch with Siân, whom he has not seen in 31 years.

He re-establishes contact through an exchange of letters, which soon veer from innocent communication into more dangerous territory. When the pair meet at the site of the original camp of their youth — now converted into a remote but posh hotel — they embark on an illicit affair, which has tragic consequences.

In anyone else’s hands this story would have become a soppy romance novel. But Anita Shreve, an accomplished writer who knows how to tread the difficult line between trash and treasure without going overboard, has crafted a fine book about love, loss, passion and desire.

By contrasting the minutiae of daily working and family life with the excitement of a forbidden love, Shreve is able to create a realistic portrait of a man on the brink of his own ruin. She also works in Siân’s side of the story in a series of alternating chapters written in first person, while the couple’s summer romance from their teenage past is conveyed in a number of short, but illuminating, passages. These individual narratives work together to form a convincing and cohesive whole.

Where or When poses many moral questions — for example, is it worth chasing happiness at any cost?– but ultimately it’s a straightforward tale, with a powerful ending, about rekindling a long-lost love.

3 thoughts on “‘Where or When’ by Anita Shreve”

  1. Dean, funnily enough I never think of men reading Shreve’s work — not sure why I think that because she does write very convincing male characters and often writes her stories from the male perspective. I’ll be interested in finding out what you think of the book you end up reading to see whether it blows this myth of mine out of the water!


  2. This is an interesting post and I think Shreve’s “Where or When” is an interesting read as well. The synopsis seems to be intriguing that it makes me want to grab copies for myself and my bookworm friends. This is also the kind of book I want to bring on a trip. I can even purchase this book first before I pack my stuff and settle my backpacker insurance. This post is a good way to feature a seemingly nice book. It’s short and simple yet it manages to give a good gist for someone like me to instantly get interested.


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