The Last Time They Met: A Novel

The Last Time They Met: A Novel

3.5 171
by Anita Shreve

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From the last time Linda and Thomas meet, at a charmless hotel in a distant city, to the moment, thirty-five years earlier, when a chance encounter on a rocky beach binds them fatefully together, this hypnotically compelling novel unfolds a tale of intense passion, drama, and suspense. The Last Time They Met is a singularly ambitious and accomplished work by one

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From the last time Linda and Thomas meet, at a charmless hotel in a distant city, to the moment, thirty-five years earlier, when a chance encounter on a rocky beach binds them fatefully together, this hypnotically compelling novel unfolds a tale of intense passion, drama, and suspense. The Last Time They Met is a singularly ambitious and accomplished work by one of today's most widely celebrated novelists.

Editorial Reviews

Chicago Tribune
...a flat-out, can't-put-it-down pageturner...a riveting story that teases and confounds...
USA Today
Shreve's cleverly designed act of prestidigitation is dazzling.
Publishers Weekly
The latest work by this versatile novelist may be her most mature to date...demonstrates new subtleties...Shreve's compassionate view of human at its most affecting here, as she meticulously interweaves past and present with total credibility.
...a fluid weave of past and present, subtly mounting suspense, an unabashed insistence on the primacy of love.
...a mystery, and one so astonishingly well-constructed that when you're finished you'll want to reread it at once.
This eighth novel from the bestselling author of The Pilot's Wife bucks the standard progression of time in both clever and problematic ways. Fifty-two-year-old poet Linda Fallon attends a literary festival and encounters her former lover, Thomas Janes. The two reacquaint themselves, sharing stories of the lives they've built in their years apart. As the festival closes, so too does the present-day time period. The next section of the book opens in Africa, twenty-six years earlier. Thomas and Linda, both married to other people, bump into each other at a fruit market; the chance meeting ignites their relationship. In the book's last section, set in Hull, Massachusetts, in the mid-'60s, the couple meets for the first time, and the intricacies of the story line abruptly unravel. Though the prose often sings, it can't transcend what is essentially a sentimental romance with a somewhat confusing plot contrivance; until the final pages, the reader must accept on faith the depth of Thomas and Linda's feelings. Still, the story is magnetic enough to engage one's interest through at least one reading—though possibly more.
—E. Beth Thomas

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The latest work by this versatile novelist (The Pilot's Wife; Fortune's Rocks) may be her most mature to date, as she demonstrates new subtleties in the unfolding of a complex plot. Proceeding in reverse chronological order, Shreve recounts the obsessive love between poets Linda Fallon and Thomas Janes; theirs is a highly charged affair, though they connect only three times in 35 years. The novel's three sections ("Fifty-Two," "Twenty-Six" and "Seventeen") refer to Linda's ages when she meets and later encounters Thomas first (last in the book's structure) as a troubled teen near Boston with "only indistinct memories of her mother and no real ones of her father"; then in Kenya, where Linda has joined the Peace Corps and Thomas's wife, Regina, is working with UNICEF; and finally at a literary festival in Toronto where both characters, unbeknownst to each other, are guest speakers. Though each of the novel's segments is intensely powerful, the cumulative effect is especially wrenching, as the reader knows what Linda and Thomas have yet to experience. Their Africa encounter is especially gripping, since both characters are torn between their mutual passion and their love for their spouses. (Linda has also married, and Regina's announcement of her pregnancy adds further tension.) Shreve's compassionate view of human frailties a recurring theme in much of her work is at its most affecting here, as she meticulously interweaves past and present with total credibility. Her fluid narrative perfectly mirrors her protagonists' evolving temperaments and viewpoints, while her overall restraint serves to intensify the novel's devastating conclusion. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Shreve is one of those rare novelists whose prose is just as remarkable as her storytelling. This new work picks up the character Thomas Janes from Shreve's The Weight of Water. (He is the husband of narrator Jean.) We learn the history of Thomas's great love with fellow poet Linda Fallon. The novel is told in reverse time, starting with the present, when Linda and Thomas, now in their fifties, reconnect at a literary festival. The middle section takes place in Africa, where the couple, then age 26, had a disastrous affair that horribly affected a number of loved ones and changed their own lives forever. The intensity of Africa's vibrant texture and color heightens the passionate drama. And the last section, during high school, takes place in New England, where Thomas and Linda launched their life-long obsession with each other. While the backwards progression is confusing at times and can necessitate some rereading, it is time well spent. The tragic relationship of these two connected souls will stick with you for days. Oprah-pick Shreve does it again with this achingly emotional novel. Stock up. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/00.] Beth Gibbs, formerly with P.L. of Charlotte & Mecklenburg Cty., NC Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Bestselling Shreve (The Pilot's Wife) reuses a character from a previous novel in this new work tracing a doomed love affair backwards in time. We meet 52-year-old Linda Fallon checking into a Toronto hotel for a literary conference, at which she meets fellow American poet Thomas Janes, whom she hasn't seen since the disastrous denouement of their adulterous affair in Africa 25 years earlier. Since then, as readers of The Weight of Water already know, he's seen his five-year-old daughter drown and gotten a second divorce. Thomas still carries the torch Linda first ignited when she was a working-class Catholic teenager recently returned from a Magdalene home for "wayward girls" and he was an Episcopalian from the right side of the tracks dazzled by her boldness and individuality. During the conference they fall into bed again, and Part One ends with a parting at the airport that offers hope of long-delayed happiness for this star-crossed pair. Part Two depicts their encounter in Kenya: both married to other people but retaining tender memories of the adolescent romance cut short by a car accident, they're briefly happy until Thomas's wife finally achieves her desperate desire to get pregnant, triggering an ugly confrontation the author inexplicably doesn't allow us to witness. Part Three finally gets us back to Hull, Massachusetts, but the story of Linda's abuse by her aunt's boyfriend and her sexual healing through Thomas's love is overshadowed by an outrageous final plot twist. It's fine to fool the reader if you play fair-for example, as Rebecca Goldstein did in Properties of Light. Shreve, by contrast, doesn't suggest that her solid (if not especially gripping) storyline is anything other than what it seems until she tears the entire premise to shreds in the book's two last pages. The shock ending and pretentious elements, such as Linda's unconvincing struggle with her faith, can't disguise the fact that the author is very short of fresh ideas here.

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Little, Brown and Company
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5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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She had come from the plane and was even now forgetting the ride from the airport. As she stepped from the car, she emerged to an audience of a doorman in uniform and another man in a dark coat moving through the revolving door of the hotel. The man in the dark coat hesitated, taking a moment to open an umbrella that immediately, in one fluid motion, blew itself inside out. He looked abashed and then purposefully amused—for now she was his audience—as he tossed the useless appendage into a bin and moved on.

She wished the doorman wouldn't take her suitcase, and if it hadn't been for the ornate gold leaf of the canopy and the perfectly polished brass of the entryway, she might have told him it wasn't necessary. She hadn't expected the tall columns that rose to a ceiling she couldn't see clearly without squinting, or the rose carpet through those columns that was long enough for a coronation. The doorman wordlessly gave her suitcase—inadequate in this grandeur—to a bellman, as if handing off a secret. She moved past empty groupings of costly furniture to the reception desk.

Linda, who had once minded the commonness of her name, gave her credit card when asked, wrote her signature on a piece of paper, and accepted a pair of keys, one plastic, the other reassuringly real, the metal key for the minibar, for a drink if it came to that. She followed directions to a bank of elevators, noting on a mahogany table a bouquet of hydrangeas and daylilies as tall as a ten-year-old boy. Despite the elegance of the hotel, the music in the elevator was cloying and banal, and she wondered how it was this detail had been overlooked. She followed signs and arrows along a wide, hushed corridor built during an era when space was not a luxury.

The white paneled door of her room was heavy and opened with a soft click. There was a mirrored entryway that seemed to double as a bar, a sitting room with heavily draped windows and French doors veiled with sheers that led to a bedroom larger than her living room at home. The weight of unwanted obligation was, for the moment, replaced with wary acceptance of being pampered. But then she looked at the ivory linen pillows on the massive bed and thought of the waste that it was only herself who would sleep there—she who might have been satisfied with a narrow bed in a narrow room, who no longer thought of beds as places where love or sex was offered or received.

She sat for a moment in her wet raincoat, waiting for the bellman to bring her suitcase to her. She closed her eyes and tried to relax, an activity for which she had no talent. She had never been to a yoga class, never meditated, unable to escape the notion that such strategies constituted a surrender, an admission that she could no longer bear to touch the skin of reality, her old lover. As if she would turn her back against a baffled husband, when once she had been so greedy.

She answered the door to a young bellman, overtipping the man to compensate for her pathetically small suitcase. She was aware of scrutiny on his part, impartial scrutiny simply because she was a woman and not entirely old. She crossed to the windows and drew back the drapes, and even the dim light of a rainy day was a shock to the gloom of the room. There were blurred buildings, the gleam of wet streets, glimpses of gray lake between skyscrapers. Two nights in one hotel room. Perhaps by Sunday morning she would know the number, would not have to ask at the front desk, as she so often had to do. Her confusion, she was convinced (as the desk clerks clearly were not), a product simply of physics: she had too much to think about and too little time in which to think it. She had long ago accepted her need for extravagant amounts of time for contemplation (more, she had observed, than others seemed to need or want). And for years she had let herself believe that this was a product of her profession, her art, when it was much the other way around. The spirit sought and found the work, and discontent began when it could not.

And, of course, it was a con, this art. Which was why she couldn't help but approach a podium, any podium, with a mantle of slight chagrin that she could never quite manage to hide, her shoulders hunched inside her jacket or blouse, her eyes not meeting those in the audience, as if the men and women in front of her might challenge her, accuse her of fraud—which, in the end, only she appeared to understand she was guilty of. There was nothing easier nor more agonizing than writing the long narrative verses that her publisher put in print—easy in that they were simply daydreams written in ink; agonizing the moment she returned to consciousness (the telephone rang, the heat kicked on in the basement) and looked at the words on the blue-lined page and saw, for the first time, the dishonest images, the manipulation and the conniving wordplay, all of which, when it had been a good day, worked well for her. She wrote poetry, she had been told, that was accessible, a fabulous and slippery word that could be used in the service of both scathing criticism and excessive praise, neither of which she thought she deserved. Her greatest wish was to write anonymously, though she no longer mentioned this to her publishers, for they seemed slightly wounded at these mentions, at the apparent ingratitude for the long—and tedious?—investment they had made in her that was finally, after all these years, beginning to pay off. Some of her collections were selling now (and one of them was selling very well indeed) for reasons no one had predicted and no one seemed to understand, the unexpected sales attributable to that vague and unsettling phenomenon called "word of mouth."

She covered the chintz bedspread with her belongings: the olive suitcase (slim and soft for the new stingy overheads); the detachable computer briefcase (the detaching a necessity for the security checks); and her microfiber purse with its eight compartments for her cell phone, notebook, pen, driver's license, credit cards, hand cream, lipstick, and sunglasses. She used the bathroom with her coat still on and then searched for her contact lens case so that she could remove the miraculous plastic irritants from her eyes, the lenses soiled with airplane air and smoke from a concourse bar, a four-hour layover in Dallas ending in capitulation to a plate of nachos and a Diet Coke. And seeping around the edges, she began to feel the relief that hotel rooms always provided: a place where no one could get to her.

She sat again on the enormous bed, two pillows propped behind her. Across from her was a gilded mirror that took in the entire bed, and she could not look into such a mirror without thinking of various speakable and unspeakable acts that had almost certainly been performed in front of that mirror. (She thought of men as being particularly susceptible to mirrors in hotel rooms.) Her speculation led inevitably to consideration of substances that had spilled or fallen onto that very bedspread (how many times? thousands of times?) and the room was immediately filled with stories: a married man who loved his wife but could make love to her but once a month because he was addicted to fantasizing about her in front of hotel mirrors on his frequent business trips, her body the sole object of his sexual imaginings; a man cajoling a colleague into performing one of the speakable acts upon him, enjoying the image of her subservient head bobbing in the mirror over the dresser and then, when he had collapsed into a sitting position, confessing, in a moment that would ultimately cost him his job, that he had herpes (why were her thoughts about men today so hostile?); a woman who was not beautiful, but was dancing naked in front of the mirror, as she would never do at home, might never do again (there, that was better). She took her glasses off so that she could not see across the room. She leaned against the headboard and closed her eyes.

She had nothing to say. She had said it all. She had written all the poems she would ever write. Though something large and subter-ranean had fueled her images, she was a minor poet only. She was, possibly, an overachiever. She would coast tonight, segue early into the Q&A, let the audience dictate the tenor of the event. Mercifully, it would be short. She appreciated literary festivals for precisely that reason: she would be but one of many novelists and poets (more novelists than poets), most of whom were better known than she. She knew she ought to examine the program before she went to the cocktail party on the theory that it sometimes helped to find an acquaintance early on so that one was not left stranded, looking both unpopular and easy prey; but if she glanced at the program, it would pull her too early into the evening, and she resisted this invasion. How protective she had recently grown of herself, as if there were something tender and vulnerable in need of defense.

From the street, twelve floors below, there was a clanging of a large machine. In the corridor there were voices, those of a man and a woman, clearly upset.

It was pure self-indulgence, the writing. She could still remember (an antidote to the chagrin?) the exquisite pleasure, the texture, so early on, of her first penciled letters on their stout lines, the practiced slant of the blue-inked cursive on her first copybook (the lavish F of Frugality, the elegant E of Envy). She collected them now, old copybooks, small repositories of beautiful handwriting. It was art, found art, of that she was convinced. She had framed some of the individual pages, had lined the walls of her study at home with the prints. She supposed the copybooks (mere schoolwork of anonymous women, long dead) were virtually worthless—she had hardly ever paid more than five or ten dollars for one in a secondhand book store—but they pleased her nevertheless. She was convinced that for her the writing was all about the act of writing itself, even though her own penmanship had deteriorated to an appalling level, nearly code.

She stood up from the bed and put her glasses on. She peered into the mirror. Tonight she would wear long earrings of pink Lucite. She would put her lenses back in and use a lipstick that didn't clash with the Lucite, and that would be that. Seen from a certain angle, she might simply disappear.

Copyright © 2001 by Anita Shreve

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