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.