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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Little Miss Fortune
Thank heaven for Anita Shreve. The author of the beloved The Weight Of Water, the Oprah-fied The Pilot's Wife, and now, Fortune's Rocks, is one of the few contemporary writers who creates novels — largely for women — that are mainstream enough to appeal to a great number of book buyers and intelligent enough to keep those book buyers from feeling guilty for selling out to commerce. How does she manage it? Usually by melding just the right amount of old-fashioned readability with ripped-from-the-headlines topicality. The Pilot's Wife, for example, tells an age-old story: A woman discovers that her recently deceased husband had had a whole "other life," complete with another wife and child; the topicality was the (rather improbable) fact that the husband was also involved with the headline-grabbing IRA.
In FORTUNE'S ROCKS, Shreve turns historical in venue and ultramodern in attitude. Set at the turn of the century — the 20th century, that is — the story concerns Olympia Biddleford, well-born daughter of an erudite, if rather cold father. The precocious Olympia is the kind of girl who might then have been called high-spirited: She has her own opinions about history and literature, for example, and isn't shy about expressing them — at least within the safety of her family. But Olympia is also high-spirited and provocative in other, more dangerous ways — most notably when she embarks on a sexual relationship with John Haskell, one of her father's friends (and 30 years her senior!). Nothing goodwillcome of this, Olympia and the reader both know from the outset; it doesn't take long — just about a third of the novel, in fact — for this foreboding to be proved right. The lovers are soon discovered, and their lives are torn asunder. Haskell's wife leaves him, the Biddlefords' reputation is seriously besmirched, and Olympia is sent by her omnipotent father to a school "out west."
But the story hardly ends there. Olivia, it turns out, is pregnant with Haskell's child, and though in a drugged postpartum state she allows her son to be taken from her, she soon returns to Fortune's Rocks intent on reclaiming him.
It's at this point that Shreve begins blending the novel's own particular topicality cocktail. Olympia discovers that her son is living with well-meaning but poor French immigrants, and she decides to use her not insignificant fortune and still powerful (if somewhat tarnished) reputation to prove that she, not the Telesphore Bolducs, should have custody of her boy. The problem is, even Olympia can't deny that the Bolducs are loving parents and that the child is happy and well in their care. What follows is a court case and a soul-searching that liberally borrows not only from the biblical tale of King Solomon (who is the better mother — the one who will allow her child to be figuratively cut in half or the one who allows him to live with the other?) but also from pop culture milestones such as the 1979 movie "Kramer vs. Kramer" and the Mary Beth Whitehead surrogate mother trial (remember that one?). The denouement will surprise no careful reader who has noticed the late-20th-century political correctness that runs deep in 19th-century Olympia. Shreve has already shown us her heroine's tendency toward outspokenness; she has also twigged us to her heroine's politics by showing her at work with Haskell at a "women's clinic" where all kinds of women receive a variety of not necessarily socially sanctioned services. Some readers may find such anachronisms jarring (the more charitable will call them "cultural meldings"), but even the most skeptical can't deny Shreve's ability to tell a story and to hold her audience's attention. Olympia — while sometimes overbearing in her gumption and earnestness of purpose — is a recognizable heroine; John Haskell is the prototypical good man undone by love. Shreve's prose style is, for the most part, straightforward, with just the right number of dramatic, sweeping descriptions to create the romantic vista her readers crave. Like a screenwriter scripting a contemporary Hollywood blockbuster, she knows just when to focus on atmosphere — the details of life in the upper-crust small seaside town of Fortune's Rocks are filmably perfect — and just when to pull back for the larger, universal view. The literary version of a Miramax costume drama, FORTUNE'S ROCKS is a contemporary story all dressed up in 19th-century clothes. Never mind the era, Anita Shreve seems to be saying. When it comes to love and loss and motherhood, it was always ever thus.
Sara Nelson, formerly executive editor of The Book Report and book columnist for Glamour, is now editor-at-large of Self magazine. She also contributes to Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, and Salon.