For many readers, the appeal of Anita Shreve’s novels is their ability to combine all of the escapist elements of a good beach read with the kind of thoughtful complexity not generally associated with romantic fiction. Shreve’s books are loaded with enough adultery, eroticism, and passion to make anyone keep flipping the pages, but the writer whom People magazine once dubbed a “master storyteller” is also concerned with the complexities of her characters’ motivations, relationships, and lives.
Shreve’s novels draw on her diverse experiences as a teacher and journalist: she began writing fiction while teaching high school, and was awarded an O. Henry Prize in 1975 for her story, “Past the Island, Drifting.” She then spent several years working as a journalist in Africa, and later returned to the States to raise her children. In the 1980s, she wrote about women’s issues, which resulted in two nonfiction books -- Remaking Motherhood and Women Together, Women Alone -- before breaking into mainstream fiction with Eden Close in 1989.
This interest in women’s lives -- their struggles and success, families and friendships -- informs all of Shreve’s fiction. The combination of her journalist’s eye for detail and her literary ear for the telling turn of phrase mean that Shreve can spin a story that is dense, atmospheric, and believable. Shreve incorporates the pull of the sea -- the inexorable tides, the unpredictable surf -- into her characters’ lives the way Willa Cather worked the beauty and wildness of the Midwestern plains into her fiction. In Fortune’s Rocks and The Weight of Water, the sea becomes a character itself, evocative and ultimately consuming. In Sea Glass, Shreve takes the metaphor as far as she can, where characters are tested again and again, only to emerge stronger by surviving the ravages of life.
A domestic sensualist, Shreve makes use of the emblems of household life to a high degree, letting a home tell its stories just as much as its inhabitants do, and even recycling the same house through different books and periods of time, giving it a sort of palimpsest effect, in which old stories burn through the newer ones, creating a historical montage. "A house with any kind of age will have dozens of stories to tell," she says. "I suppose if a novelist could live long enough, one could base an entire oeuvre on the lives that weave in and out of an antique house."
Shreve’s work is sometimes categorized as “women’s fiction,” because of her focus on women’s sensibilties and plights. But her evocative and precise language and imagery take her beyond category fiction, and moderate the vein of sentimentality which threads through her books. Moreover, her kaleidoscopic view of history, her iron grip on the details and detritus of 19th-century life (which she sometimes intersperses with a 20th-century story), and her uncanny ability to replicate 19th-century dialogue without sounding fusty or fussy, make for novels that that are always absorbing and often riveting. If she has a flaw, it is that her imagery is sometimes too cinematic, but one can hardly fault her for that: after all, the call of Hollywood is surely as strong as the call of the sea for a writer as talented as Shreve.
(Kerry J. Tucker)
A Note from the Author
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In this note from her web site, Anita Shreve discusses the origin of Sea Glass and how houses came to be such an important part of her novels.
I first saw the house in Biddeford Pool, Maine about five years ago. We were renting a sad and pathetic cottage there for our summer vacation, and one of my favorite pasttimes was to walk through the village and look at the houses. One day I took a side street I hadn't been down before and at the end of it was one of the most beautiful houses I had ever seen. It was two stories high, of white clapboards, and it had a Mansard roof with dozens of dormer windows poking out of it. It was completely surrounded by a wraparound porch on which sat two wooden rockers looking out to sea. The house had a kind of graciousness and serenity that was exceptional, and I think it is fair to say that I fell in love with the house. I wanted to live there.
Living in it was, however, obviously out of the question then, but that was all right, I thought -- it was enough just to be able to look at it and fantasize about it. I've always been charmed by houses, and descriptions of them are prominent in my novels. So prominent, in fact, that my editor once pointed out to me that all of my early novels had houses on the covers.
A novel is a collision of ideas. Three or four threads may be floating around in the writer's consciousness, and at a single moment in time, these ideas collide and produce a novel. Shortly after I had first seen the house, I overheard a conversation between a pilot and a woman at a party. Something he said lodged in my consciousness and wouldn't go away. The thing he said was: When there's a crash, the union always gets there first. He meant that when there was a crash of a commercial airliner, a member of the pilot's union made it a point to get to the pilot's wife's house first. There are a lot of reasons for this, the most important of which is to keep her from talking to the press. And there was my collision of ideas. I decided to set my novel, The Pilot's Wife, in the house I had seen in Biddeford Pool. At the very least, the novel gave me a wonderful excuse to think about the house for a year and get paid for it.
So strong was the house's hold on me, however, that I was loathe to let it go, even when I let go of the novel itself. I knew already I wanted to set my next novel in the 19th century because I had found writing in 19th century language in The Weight of Water so pleasurable. At the same time, I was observing the process of having a daughter and two stepdaughters pass through that delicate age of 14 to 15. Same house, I thought, but a hundred years earlier. Very different story, very different young woman.
A house with any kind of age will have dozens of stories to tell. I suppose if a novelist could live long enough, one could base an entire oeuvre on the lives that weave in and out of an antique house. Until recently, I lived in an old house of my own. It had sloping floors, no closets, no bathroom big enough in which to take an actual bath. Sometimes I felt awash in plastic toys, old newspapers and milk cartons I thought I was recycling. But occasionally, when there was a fire in the large kitchen hearth and I was sitting beside it at the table, I imagined the people who had gone before me: The young woman who gave birth in the room just off the kitchen that was known as the borning room; the middle-aged woman who cried at the inattentions of her husband in the room that was our bedroom; the child who died of diphtheria croup in the room that belonged to my son. Sometimes I would have to force myself to realize that they, too, lived their lives in technicolor, that their experience of life was just as vivid and as immediate as mine. In that house there was a great deal of history -- the history of accounts rendered, dresses falling, bitter accusations and words of love. It was a house full of stories.
Last year, when I was on tour for the paperback of Fortune's Rocks, I was giving a reading at a bookstore in Nashville. A woman in the audience raised her hand and asked: Why did you set both novels in the same house? And I answered that I had been thinking about the fact that a house with any kind of age might have dozens of stories to tell. Ten or eleven women, each with her own life, her own story, could be imagined to have lived in the house that featured in The Pilot's Wife and Fortune's Rocks. For example, I said, you could write, say, a story about a women who lived there during World War II, or during The Great Depression.
If I didn't actually pause in my answer, I had a heart-stopping pause in my head. There's an idea, I thought. Same house, absolutely derelict this time, very different kind of woman trying to make a go of it during a difficult era in our nation's history. I have no memory of the rest of the Q and A, or the signing, but I do remember moving immediately to the history section of the bookstore and searching for a book on the Great Depression. My escort found me and said, "You know, they want to give you a book for doing the reading." "Wonderful," I said. "I want this one." She glanced down at the book and narrowed her eyes at what looked to be a very dry history text. "Are you sure?" she asked. "I'm very sure," I said.
The novel that resulted is Sea Glass. I often think that sea glass itself is not unlike old houses in that it, too, suggests stories of previous lives. Sea glass is essentially trash -- bits of glass from ships that have gone down or garbage that has been tossed overboard. The glass breaks and then is weathered by the sea and washes up onto shore. The shards take on a lovely patina and come in many subdued colors. Sea glass will not break. I have spent many hours on the beach collecting sea glass, and I almost always wonder, as I bend to pick up chunk of bottle green or a shard of meringue white, what the history of the glass was. Who used it? Was it a medicine bottle? A bit of a ship's lantern? Is that bubbled piece of glass with the charred bits inside it from a fire?
The pull of history has been a strong theme in my life as a novelist. I don't know that I will write any more novels set in that particular house on Fortune's Rocks beach, because I have to wait for that collision of ideas. But I suspect the house has many stories left to tell. I know that dwelling very well now. I feel an odd sort of bond with it, a unique kind of loyalty.
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