Abacus, Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, historical fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, USA

‘Fortune’s Rocks’ by Anita Shreve

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 476 pages; 2001.

It’s been three years since I last read an Anita Shreve novel. She’s usually my go-to author when I’m looking for some light but immersive reading. I like her plot-driven stories, which are typically peopled by strong, resilient women often caught up in moral or ethical dilemmas.

Fortune’s Rock, published in 1999, was her eighth novel (before she died in 2018, she penned 19 novels — and I’ve read most of them).

Set at the turn of the 20th century, it’s an age-old story of a teenage girl falling for an older man and then being forced to suffer the consequences of her illicit liaison by a society that sees everything in black or white.

A summer love affair

When the book opens we meet 15-year-old Olympia Biddeford walking along a New Hampshire beach one hot June day in 1899. Her family — a poorly, mainly bed-ridden mother and a rich, scholarly father who publishes a literary magazine and home schools his daughter — have decamped to the beachside community of Fortune’s Rocks from Boston for the summer.

In the time it takes for her to walk from the bathhouse at the sea wall of Fortune’s Rocks, where she has left her boots and has discreetly pulled off her stockings, to the waterline along which the sea continually licks the pink and silver sand, she learns about desire.

All the men on the beach staring at her sets the tone for the rest of this 400-plus page novel, for Olympia, on the cusp of womanhood, is subject to the male gaze at almost every turn. When she meets her father’s friend,  John Warren Haskell, an essayist and medical doctor, the way he looks at her takes on deeper meaning.

There is no mistaking this gaze. It is not a look that turns itself into a polite moment of recognition or a nod of encouragement to speak. Nor is it the result of an absentminded concentration of thought. It is rather an entirely penetrating gaze with no barriers or boundaries. It is scrutiny such as Olympia has never encountered in her young life. And she thinks that the entire table must be stopped in that moment, as she is, feeling its nearly intolerable intensity.

Despite 41-year-old Haskell being married with four children, the pair go on to have a passionate love affair that opens Olympia’s eyes, not only to love and desire, but to the wider world in general. When she accompanies Haskell on one of his medical rounds at the impoverished mill town in nearby Ely, she witnesses childbirth for the first time and begins to understand that her upbringing has been rather staid and sheltered. This only heightens her desire to seek out new experiences.

Their summer-long affair, which comprises trysts in Haskell’s hotel room while his wife is away, and later in the half-constructed coastal cottage that Haskell is building for his family, skirts dangerous territory. There is an unknown witness to their affair, who manages to expose their wrongdoing at the worst possible moment: Olympia’s extravagant 16th birthday gala party attended by more than 100 people.

Plot-driven story

This is a plot-driven novel and it’s difficult to say much more without ruining the story for others yet to read it. Let’s just say that ruination results for both Olympia and Haskell’s family, and a good portion of the novel is set in a courtroom.

But for all its old-fashioned sentiment, its expert portrayal of late 19th century morals and its championing of young women’s rights, I had some issues with Fortune’s Rocks.

It’s too long for a start. A judicious cut of at least 100 pages would not take anything away from the plot. It feels a bit prone to histrionics in places, too, and is far too predictable from start to finish. And the courtroom bits towards the end, particularly in the way that Olympia behaves, seems informed by late 20th century attitudes.

And don’t get me started about John Haskell having his way with a 15-year-old! Shreve paints a very sympathetic portrait of him and suggests that Olympia knew exactly what she was doing —

“Though I was very young and understood little of the magnitude of what I was doing, I was not seduced. Never seduced. I had will and some understanding. I could have stopped it at any time.”

— but I still didn’t buy it. This kind of relationship would be scandalous today; more than 100 years ago it would have been ruinous!

In short, this isn’t the best Shreve book I’ve read, nor is it the worst (that honour lies with A Wedding in December). It was a good distraction for lockdown reading, requiring little brainpower, and kept me entertained for a week. But on the whole, Fortune’s Rocks — even with its happy, redemptive ending — didn’t set my world on fire.

This is my 15th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I “mooched” a paperback copy of this book years and years ago (circa 2006), but I read the Kindle edition for this review.

Anita Shreve, Book review, Fiction, general, Little, Brown, USA

‘The Stars are Fire’ by Anita Shreve

The stars are fire by Anita Shreve

Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown; 256 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

The Stars Are Fire is typical Anita Shreve fare: a simple story about a woman trapped by circumstance and societal expectations who must find a way to seek happiness against the odds.

This might sound clichéd or even naff, but in Shreve’s capable hands it’s not, for Shreve is a terrific storyteller and this novel — her 19th — features all the things I love about her work: strong female characters traversing moral minefields and all told in a fast-paced, economical yet elegant prose style.

Summer fire risk

The story is set on the coast of Maine in 1947 during an unusually hot summer. Grace Holland is married to a quantity surveyor, Gene, with whom she has a troubled relationship: his brooding silences and bullying bedtime practices make her desperately unhappy, but what is she to do? The sexual revolution hasn’t happened yet, she has two young children and a third on the way, and she’s never worked outside the home so is entirely reliant on her husband for financial support.

When wildfires break out further along the coast, Gene heads off to help fight them with his colleagues. But when the wind unexpectedly changes and sweeps the fire back towards the Holland’s neighbourhood, Grace finds herself in mortal danger. Grabbing the children, she flees to the beach, where they spend the night buried in the sand to protect themselves from the deadly flames.

This is where the story takes a tragic turn: the Holland’s house is wiped out in the fire, Grace loses her unborn baby and Gene never returns, but whether he has died in the fire or taken the opportunity to do a runner isn’t clear.

Dramatic story

Okay, so this all sounds rather dramatic, doesn’t it? Domestic abuse. Tick. A community tragedy. Tick. A missing husband. Tick. A dead baby. Tick. A home burned to the ground. Tick.

And things for Grace and her children get far worse before they get better.

But the story isn’t without hope, because over the next few months Grace painstakingly builds a new life for herself without her husband’s support. She learns to drive a car, lands herself a new job and finds herself falling in love with a new man.

Yet Grace’s new-found happiness is tested to the limit in many different ways  and it’s when she least expects it that it threatens to come crumbling down around her feet.

Superb storytelling

As ever, Shreve’s storytelling is on fire in this book (pun fully intended). The narrative burns with a fierce intensity (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and all the characters, including Grace’s bullying husband, are drawn with enormous sympathy.

And while the plot machinations are entirely predictable (if not downright obvious), I found myself swept up in Grace’s life — I was cheering her on even when I knew I was being emotionally manipulated by the quietly sentimental story that unfolds over 250 pages.

The Stars Are Fire — due for publication in the UK on 2 May — probably won’t set your world alight (sorry!), but it is perfect escapist fiction, the kind that mixes suspense with romance, tragedy and human frailty, and keeps you wholly absorbed the entire time you’re reading it. It’s a fine novel, one that is sure to impress existing fans and perhaps garner the author a bevy of new ones.

Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, France, historical fiction, literary fiction, Little, Brown, London, Publisher, Setting, USA, war

‘The Lives of Stella Bain’ by Anita Shreve


Fiction – Kindle edition; Little, Brown Book Group; 272 pages; 2013.

I’ve read a lot of Anita Shreve in my time (12 books in total and all reviewed here), but it’s been a while since I last dipped into one of her novels — for no other reason than too many titles by other authors have been competing for my time. So, after recently finishing Anne Tyler’s rather marvellous A Spool of Blue ThreadI was in the mood for something similar and Shreve immediately sprang to mind.

I like Shreve’s work because it mixes journalistic realism with great storytelling: she tends to eschew literary flourishes for simple, yet elegant, prose. Her female characters are always strongly drawn. They’re often ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, which test them on all kinds of levels, whether that be physical, emotional or psychological. And she’s not afraid to explore moral or ethical dilemmas, or make her characters do unexpected — and sometimes unwise — things. She’s also very skilled at creating the intimate details of families.

A woman with amnesia

The Lives of Stella Bain, published a couple of years ago, is the author’s 18th novel. It’s set during World War One and tells the story of Stella Bain, an American who volunteers to work in the makeshift hospitals on the battlefields of France.

One day she wakes up in a hospital bed with no memory of who she is or why she’s there. She thinks her name is Stella Bain, but she cannot be sure, and she knows that she can drive an ambulance and is an exceptional artist. Everything else, however, is a mystery.

When given some leave, she heads to London convinced that the clue to her identity lies with the Admiralty. But not long after her arrival she begins to feel overwrought. She’s taken in by a young woman, Lily Bridge, who is married to Doctor Augustus Bridge, a surgeon who specialises in cranial surgery. He is also experimenting with “talk therapy” to help his patients.

This is all rather fortuitous for Stella, because Dr Bridge is able to help her, over quite a long period of time, to recover her past. When she finally recalls her true identity, she heads back to the US to re-establish contact with her family…

Far from predictable

This might all sound rather straightforward, or even predictable, but Shreve throws in a few curveballs by making Stella’s past history a little dubious — she once had an affair, for instance — and there are questions over her reasons for fleeing the States and heading to France long before the US had even joined the war. What is she running from — and why?

I’m not going to give away the answer to that here, obviously, but long-time Shreve fans may be interested to know that “Stella” is a character from one of Shreve’s earlier novels — the historical drama All He Ever Wanted — which adds an extra dimension to the story. Of course, it’s not necessary to have read that book, but it does provide a rather nice a-ha-penny-dropping moment if you have.

While the story could be viewed as being about a woman with amnesia, it actually goes a lot deeper than that: it’s about love and war; shell shock and emotional damage; psychotherapy and the fragile relationships between doctors and patients; what it’s like to work on the battlefields helping people who perhaps cannot be helped; and the importance of identity to our lives.  And mid-way through it turns into a rather intriguing court case that turns Stella’s story into a fight for something more important than herself.

All in all, I found this book a real treat. Yes, it’s too reliant on coincidence; yes, it occasionally veers worryingly close to sentimentality; and yes, the present tense narrative can be a little wearing. But on the whole it’s a well crafted story about a plucky woman refusing to give up her search for meaning when the odds are so clearly stacked against her. It’s also a fascinating insight into the effects of shell shock on a non-combatant, a subject I’ve not come across in fiction before.

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

‘Rescue’ by Anita Shreve


Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 286 pages; 2012.

If you have ever visited my favourite authors page, you will know that I admire Anita Shreve and am slowly but surely working my way through her entire back catalogue. She’s a remarkably prolific writer, but she’s also incredibly consistent and reliable. And when it comes to writing very human stories about ordinary people suffering the effects of love gone wrong, she gives Anne Tyler a run for her money.

A single father worries about his daughter

In Rescue, Shreve’s latest paperback novel (first published in 2010), Peter Webster (known purely as Webster) is a single father raising his 17-year-old daughter, Rowan, in rural Vermont. Webster thinks his daughter may be smoking and drinking behind his back. Well, so what — isn’t that what all teenagers do?

For Webster, these concerns are not so easy to dismiss — and there’s a rather compelling reason for it — but we have to go back 18 years to discover why he is so paranoid about the issue.

The narrative then jumps back to the early 1990s. Webster, a rookie paramedic, is called to  attend a road accident in which a female driver, with three and half times the legal limit of alcohol in her blood, has crashed her car into a tree.

Falls in love with the ‘wrong’ woman

After rescuing the woman from the vehicle and effectively saving her life, he is haunted by her glossy hair and her attractive face. When she is released from hospital he breaks protocol to track her down. Her name is Sheila, she’s a few years older than him, she’s feisty, likes a drink and knows how to hustle pool — but she’s also on the run from an abusive partner.

Of course, Webster is blind to the warning signs that this may not be the right woman for him, but he carries on seeing her regardless, and within just a few weeks Sheila has accidentally fallen pregnant. Cue a quickie wedding, some grudging disapproval from Webster’s parents and then a lifetime of misery to follow… Well, I exaggerate slightly, but this is not a match made in heaven.

Despite the heady bliss of moving into a new home, followed by Rowan’s arrival, their relationship soon enters rocky ground: Webster buries himself in work, Sheila takes to the bottle and disaster looms just around the corner.

A marriage unravels

While this synopsis might make the story sound like a bit of a soap opera, Shreve’s restrained style keeps the melodrama at bay. What we get is a compelling story about ordinary people caught up in the drama of their own lives. And because it is framed around Webster — it is written in the third person but we only ever see things from his point of view — it is largely about one man’s attempt to do the right thing by his family, even if that means he must cut ties with the woman he so desperately loves.

There’s plenty of narrative tension as the relationship between these two rather mismatched people reaches melting point. And the excitement of Webster’s job — almost every chapter opens with him attending an emergency call-out — adds an extra thrilling dimension. Indeed, I don’t think it’s drawing too long a bow to suggest that Webster’s career as a paramedic is a metaphor for the marriage he cannot save.

But there are a lot of coincidences in this story, and the scenario that unfolds towards the end (when Sheila re-establishes contact after more than a decade) feels forced and unlikely. Of course, there’s a too-neat and upbeat ending, which grates slightly. But this is Anita Shreve and I’ll forgive her these minor faults, because I think she’s worth reading, if not for the entertainment factor, then her insightful (and truthful) observations into emotional relationships between men and women, children and parents.

I’d suggest tucking this one into your hand luggage if you’re planning a longhaul flight — it’s perfect reading for a plane trip or a holiday.

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.

Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Little, Brown, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Testimony’ by Anita Shreve


Fiction – hardcover; Little, Brown; 320  pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Reading a new Anita Shreve novel is always a delicious experience, not least because she’s an author with an uncanny ability to spin an entertaining story out of an often simple premise. But what I like most about this prolific American author is her refusal to stick to a formula. While her novels may share similar themes — usually love, loss and family relationships in a New England setting — she plays around with narrative structure so no two books are alike.

In her latest, Testimony, she tells the story of a sex scandal at a private school in Vermont from the viewpoint of some 24 different characters. It sounds crazy to have so many voices in the mix, but somehow, in Shreve’s capable hands, the structure works without losing any narrative drive. But given the story is such a cracking one it would be almost impossible not to convey a sense of urgency and excitement in the telling of it.

The book opens with Mike Bordwin, the headmaster of Avery Academy, watching a video given to him by one of his administrative staff. The footage shows three male students from the school’s basketball team having drunken sex with a much younger pupil. While Mike is shocked and repulsed, he is also desperate to contain the outfall so that it does not tarnish the school’s sterling reputation. But we, the readers, are told at the outset that the explicit video produces …

… something very like radiation sickness throughout the school, reducing the value of an Avery education, destroying at least two marriages […], ruining the futures of three students, and, most horrifying of all, resulting in a death.

As Mike launches an in-house investigation and gets at least two of the culprits — the upstanding Rob Leicht and the less likable “ringleader” James Robles — to sign written confessions, the girl’s outraged parents call the police. Meanwhile the third culprit, Silas Quinney, a promising scholarship student with a talent for basketball, goes missing.

When a local newspaper reporter gets wind of the unfortunate events, Avery Academy suddenly attracts the kinds of unsavoury headlines that destroy reputations and ruin lives.

But, as ever with a Shreve novel, everything is not quite what it might seem. A steady drip, drip of information, delivered by different characters — including some of the parents, other teachers, the students involved and police — allows the reader to build up a picture of what really happened that fateful night. There are certain revelations which occur late in the book that gave this reviewer at least pause for thought. (As an aside, I’d caution you against reading the product description on Amazon.co.uk because it gives away some of these crucial plot spoilers — thankfully I read it after I’d finished the book.)

While Testimony doesn’t attempt to draw any moral conclusion about the scandal, nor does it attribute blame to any one party, it does throw up some interesting questions about the sexual conduct of teenagers (or, as one character puts it, “I thought it odd that no one at school thought to mention to any student that it was actually illegal in the state of Vermont for a senior boy to have intercourse with a freshman girl”) and underage drinking. But it does show very clearly how “a single action can cause a life to veer off in a direction it was never meant to go” .

The social issues here, while important, aren’t examined in any great detail, because the author is more interested in analysing how ordinary people react when thrust into extraordinary situations. For that reason alone, Anita Shreve fans will find much to like in this book and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll race through it in a day or two, desperate to find out what happens in the end.

Anita Shreve, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Little, Brown, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Body Surfing’ by Anita Shreve


Fiction – hardcover; Little, Brown; 304 pages; 2007.

When this advanced readers’ copy of Anita Shreve’s soon-to-be-published Body Surfing thudded through my mail box (courtesy of a blog friend and not the publisher) I was — to be perfectly frank — just a little excited. Long-time readers of this blog will know that I am an Anita Shreve fan. Not only does this American author produce quality fiction, she’s not afraid to experiment and go off in different directions without losing the very essence of what makes her a great writer: she knows how to spin an entertaining, often emotional, yarn without sacrificing plot or character.

Body Surfing is a welcome return to form after the disappointment of her previous novel, A Wedding in December, in which the pacing was thrown off kilter by two narratives that did not particularly compliment one another.

But in this latest addition to Shreve’s ever-expanding body of work (this is her 13th novel) the author has ditched her preference for dual narratives and stuck to one simple, and very solid, storyline.

Set on the New Hampshire coast (a favourite, if somewhat predictable, Shreve setting) over the space of three years, Body Surfing is told through the eyes of 29-year-old Sydney, who has already been once divorced and once widowed. In a seaside cottage (the same one that features in The Pilot’s Wife and Sea Glass) owned by the well-heeled Mr and Mrs Edwards she takes a summer job as a tutor to their “slow” 18-year-old daughter, Julie.

When the Edwards’ two 30-something sons, Ben and Jeff, drop by for a weekend escape, Sydney feels that she has upset the family’s equilibrium. Is she a maid, a tutor or a friend? She suspects that both sons have romantic feelings for her, but because she is still grieving for her second husband, she is not particularly keen on pursuing a third marriage… or is she?

To say anything else would spoil the twists and turns and unexpected heart-in-the-mouth surprises that this book dishes up. As ever, the language is smooth and lyrical, although I tend to think Shreve is a little heavy-handed when it comes to sub-clauses — she has a penchant for riddling her sentences with them.

But this, fortunately, does not detract from the story, nor the wonderful characterisation, and the extraordinary feel of time and place that Body Surfing evokes. Fans of Shreve’s work will not be disappointed with this one, and I rather suspect that she will acquire a whole host of new ones to boot.

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.

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

‘A Wedding in December’ by Anita Shreve


Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 336 pages; 2006.

A group of college friends, many of whom have not seen each other for 27 years, gather for a wedding at an inn in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts.

This once tight circle of friends — Rob, an out-of-the-closet pianist; Harrison, a book publisher; Jerry, a burly businessman with a stuck-up wife; Agnes, an unmarried history teacher tormented by a long-running love affair and writing a novel; Nora, the widowed owner of the inn; and the wedding couple, Bill and Bridget, who dated at school but then went on to marry other people — spend three days at the inn.

The ceremony, restricted to just this group of seven friends and one or two others, takes on a special significance because Bridget, the mother of a 15-year-old son, has breast cancer and isn’t expected to live much beyond two years.

And if this doesn’t sound melancholy enough there are other shadows hovering over this group of friends, including the death of Steven, a charismatic classmate, at a drunken high school party all those years ago, and the tragic events of 9/11 just three months earlier.

Amid this somewhat downbeat atmosphere the party gets snowed in and, fuelled by the ensuing claustrophobia, tension and too much alcohol, comes the spilling of sordid secrets from the past…

I had really wanted to love this book, having waited so long for its paperback release, but I have to say I found A Wedding in December disappointing. It felt too contrived, too stilted and too meandering. I am surprised I actually got beyond the first chapter it was so plodding and pedestrian.

I particularly disliked the way in which a dual story — about the Halifax explosion of 1917 in which more than 2,000 people died – was interspersed throughout the main narrative. Anita Shreve is usually a dab hand at dual narratives, but this one felt clunky and overworked. While I understand that it was supposed to mirror the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre I’m sure the profound nature of those events could have been handled differently — for instance, as dinner table discussion between the friends.

That said, the book isn’t entirely terrible.

The characters are well drawn and you get a real sense of what they were like at school and what they are like now, 27 years later, having experienced the ups and downs and twists and turns of their own lives.

Shreve also knows how to handle human emotions and is very good at exploring the ebbs and flows of people’s lives. If nothing else, A Wedding in December is an interesting look at how our actions and our decisions can have far-reaching repercussions and that it is never too late to seek redemption or find happiness.

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

‘The Weight of Water’ by Anita Shreve


Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 248 pages; 2005.

Jean, a photojournalist, takes her husband Thomas, a struggling poet, and young daughter Billie on assignment with her to the New Hampshire coast.

They sail on an old boat captained by Thomas’s younger brother, Rich, and Rich’s new girlfriend, Adaline, towards the unusually named island of Smuttynose. Here, in 1873, two Norwegian immigrants were murdered. A third woman, Maren Hontvedt, escaped.

Jean’s assignment is to photograph the bleak, now abandoned island for a magazine feature on the murders, for which a local man was later tried and executed.

Intrigued by the case, Jean goes slightly off brief and decides to do some research of her own. In a local museum she chances upon a sheaf of papers written by Maren Hontvedt that reveal exactly what happened…

Anita Shreve has crafted a beautifully written suspense novel, combining two narratives into one seamless story.

The first narrative, not necessarily the main one, is Maren’s, which is composed through a series of extraordinary letters. These letters detail Maren’s home life in Norway, her relationships with her siblings and her “accidental” marriage to a fisherman who whisked her away to a new life in America, where she endured much hardship and loneliness on Smuttynose Island.

When her two siblings also emigrate, the happy family reunion is thwarted by the claustrophobic confines of a small house on a windswept, treeless island, where money and comfort is in short supply. Through a series of misunderstandings and unfortunate incidents, the tension rises to that inevitable winter’s night when Maren’s sister and sister-in-law are brutally murdered.

The second narrative is Jean’s. Like Maren, she is also a victim of circumstance, trapped in a disappointing marriage and plagued by petty jealousies and possessive behaviour. The more she researches Maren’s story the more she realises that all is not as it seems – in her own life as much as Maren’s.

Is her husband having an affair with the beguiling Adaline? Is he doing it on board the boat right under her nose? Or is the claustrophobic confines of the boat – and the island’s dark history – making her paranoid?

As Jean’s suspicions rise so too does her emotional paralysis, until an unexpected storm threatens to bring every little bit of flotsam and jetsam of her marriage to the surface – with devastating consequences.

Ultimately, this is another classic Shreve novel that grips from the first page. While the juxtaposition of both stories sometimes feels “clunky” the author more than makes up for this by delivering a well researched tale that packs not one but two surprise punches at the end.