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

Stella-Bain

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

Rescue

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

ChangeinAltitude

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.