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

‘A Change in Altitude’ by Anita Shreve


Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 365 pages; 2010.

Anita Shreve is one of my guilty pleasures. Sadly, she seems to get pigeon-holed into “popular fiction” rather than “literary fiction” which means she rarely garners critical acclaim, and yet I find her body of work — 15 novels at last count — immensely impressive. Shreve knows how to pen a fast-moving narrative peopled with believable, usually flawed, characters, but her real strength lies in her ability to reinvent her style anew. She is not a one-trick pony; each book is vastly different to the previous one; and she seems equally adept at writing historical fiction as she does contemporary fiction.

A Change in Altitude, her latest paperback, is no exception. This book is set in the late 1970s and revolves around a newlywed couple, Margaret and Patrick, who move to Kenya from Boston. Patrick is a doctor; Margaret a newspaper photographer. Together they go on a climbing expedition to Mount Kenya, accompanied by an older British couple (their landlords), and a Dutch couple. It’s supposed to be an adventure, a chance to experience the “real Africa”, but from the outset Margaret is clearly not confident about the trip (she lacks experience and fitness) but agrees to go because she loves her husband.

During the ascent, which is physically and mentally strenuous, a terrible accident occurs, which results in one of the party being killed. The rest of the novel looks at the impact of this death on Margaret and Patrick’s marriage, which is put under further strain by a series of robberies (their car is stolen and their house ransacked several times) and their complete inability to adapt to a strange, new culture.

Essentially the story is nothing more than a fairly dull domestic drama that plays out on foreign soil. Admittedly, I found that the second half of the book did not live up to the excitement of the first half in which every step of the mountain climb is spelt out in the manner of a psychological thriller. But after the accident, which occurs about a third of the way in, the narrative seems to lose momentum. Indeed, the book becomes radically different, as Shreve charts Margaret and Patrick’s relatively dreary lives in the aftermath of the expedition. The narrative pace only picks up again near the end when the pair decide to commemorate the first anniversary of the trek by climbing the mountain for the second time.

Even though A Change in Altitude is a quick, enjoyable and entertaining read (I particularly liked the section in which Margaret gets herself a job on the local newspaper), the characters are frustratingly unknowable throughout. Despite being written in the third person, Shreve never really reveals anyone’s motivations nor provides any inner dialogue. This means that Patrick remains a complete stranger, and Margaret is not much better. If anything, they both seem incredibly naive and immature, which is not helped by the implausible premise (which I won’t reveal, because it’s a plot spoiler) upon which their marriage flounders.

All up, A Change in Altitude is perfect fodder for those times when you just want a light read that won’t tax the brain matter too much. But if you are looking for something more intellectually stimulating with an African setting you might be better tackling Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People.

14 thoughts on “‘A Change in Altitude’ by Anita Shreve”

  1. I have never read a Shreve, I think its because I have always thought she would be either twee, boring, patronising or chick lit for the 70+… all because of the covers and just some assumption I had made in my head. Isn’t that awful?
    Having read your thoughts on her Kim I will have to look her up though maybe go for one of your four stars, I havent been and seen if you have given her any five stars yet!


  2. I seem to be one of the only ones who enjoyed this novel. It was the first Shreve I read, and I was mesmerized by her writing and the setting. I’m eager to read more to see how she shapes up, but her writing in this book makes me inclined to agree she is closer to literary fiction than I previously thought.


  3. I’m afraid I’m one of those people who tends to dismiss Shreve, but it’s mostly because I’ve found her work to be so uneven. I just don’t find it to be worth the risk. However, looking over your reviews of the books of hers I’ve read, it appears that we like and dislike the same ones. (I loved Light on Snow and enjoyed All He Ever Wanted pretty well, but I thoroughly disliked A Wedding in December and found A Pilot’s Wife frustrating.) So if I do decide to try Shreve again, I’ll look for one of your more highly rated choices.


  4. I’m glad to have now found your Anita Shreve page! I really enjoy her work but haven’t read one of her books for ages now – I still have a copy of Testimony waiting to be read. I think my favourite of her past novels would have to be Fortunes Rocks.


  5. Admittedly the covers are pretty horrible, arent they? They do the content a disservice I think because they look like something that would only appeal to a certain type of reader.
    Funnily enough most of her characters seem to be in their late 20s, so your view that the books are for 70+ year olds is pretty wide of the mark. LOL!


  6. I havent seen any reviews of this one (not that Ive gone looking), so I dont know what the general view of it is. All I know is that I really enjoyed it and couldnt put it down. It was only when I looked back on it that I realised I barely knew anything about Patrick and couldnt understand why their marriage could flounder over such a small, almost trivial, thing.


  7. I agree: she can be hit and miss. Which is probably why I borrowed this from the library rather than go out and purchase my own copy.
    That said, I do think shes under-rated and often dismissed by people who havent even tried her stuff. Shreve has a journalistic background, and I think it shows: she knows how to craft a strong story without getting mired in extraennous (spelling?) detail. I like that approach.


  8. Oh darn it – you borrowed this from a library? I was hoping to bag this from you upon my visit. Can you line up some good books for me? (I tend to pass them on to my neighbours btw.)


  9. I’ve read a few of her books and really enjoyed them, but I think you’re right she does tend to get marketed and grouped as a more popular read than literary putting some readers off, which is unfortunate. I mooched quite a few of them and now have a small shelf full, so I’ll have to see which you’ve read and enjoyed.


  10. Yes, sorry about that — think you’d like this one.
    I’ve got bags and bags of books, some of which are duplicates sent to me by publishers, which you can happily help yourself to. You might need to bring an extra suitcase! LOL.


  11. They’re easy reads, so perhaps that explains her popularity, but if you scratch under the surface there’s usually quite a bit going on, so they’re not as shallow as the critics would lead us to believe.


  12. Glad to hear your favourite is Fortunes Rock… it’s one of hers I haven’t read though I do have a rather battered second-hand copy in the TBR.


  13. I’ve generally enjoyed Anita Shreve’s books. They’re nicely written and right for when I just want something entertaining and easy to read. I shall look out for A Change in Altitude and also for July’s People.
    I saw Rupture ( titled ‘A Thousand Cuts’ here in the US) on your blog. Excellent recommendation, thank you.


  14. Thanks for posting your review – I’ve read many mixed reviews of this one and am still intrigued. I think I will check it out from the library 🙂


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