Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My Secret Summer Pleasure

I consume it quickly, with great pleasure, and rush out to buy more when I'm finished. It's delicious, easily digestible, yet the best lingers.

No, it's not Belgian chocolate. My secret summer pleasure is Anita Shreve novels.

I discovered Anita Shreve some fifteen years ago while living in Park Slope and participating in a New York City reading group composed of women novelists. Among our group were Paula Sharp and Nancy Krikorian. Nancy suggested with a gleam in her dark eyes that we read Strange Fits of Passion.

After that, I was hooked.

Shreve is a very talented woman. Her novels are addictive with a narrative tension and momentum one just doesn't find that often in well-written work. Her sentences are elegant and evocative and her characters (for the most part) depthful and well drawn. Shreve's milieau is the New England coast, melancholy, haunted, craggy and beautiful, and she returns to it again and again, peeling away more layers, deepening our understanding of the landscape. She understands obsession in all of its gleaming and dark facets. Love is at the core of all of her work. In some ways, she is a top-notch romance writer, for intelligent women.

There is always an element of surprise, even shock, in Shreve's narratives. In the best of her work, the revelation is both startling and inevitable. My favorite of her books is The Weight of Water, which holds up as a work of art. When her books disappoint, the plot twist is manipulative and strains credulity, a story jerry-built upon a contrived notion, narrative and characters forced to fit the preconceived structure. This was a problem in Body Surfing. I enjoyed the story, the characters, and setting until I reached the climax and the eddies emanating from that plot twist. Without giving anything away, let's just say that the surprise was not believable from the standpoint of character. An earlier novel of Shreve's, I completed compulsively on a train, and hurled across the aisle when I reached the final page, that's how angry I was at the incredible, unsatisfying shocker which concluded the book. If memory serves, that novel was The Last Time They Met.

Shreve's most recent book, now out in paperback, is a good read on a timely subject. Testimony grapples with the reverberations of a sex scandal at an exclusive prep school in Vermont. Shreve tells the story from multiple viewpoints, and the novel is more about the impact of such a scandal, not only on individuals, but on a community. It is a worthy book, though I personally would have preferred fewer voices. The first-person teens speaking in short takes sounded strained and false. (I hear a couple of teens and their pals speak daily, many times a day, and teach creative writing to adolescents as well, so I know from whence I speak.) I was fascinated by the headmaster and wanted more of him. For me, the multiple voices, though an interesting conceit, put the novel at risk from bursting apart by centrifugal force. Was that part of Shreve's purpose?

I have to confess: even when a Shreve book is flawed, I still run out and read her next. Now that's a successful novelist. Speaking from the trenches, what she is doing aint easy.


Carolyne said...

Hmmm. She's not my favourite secret place... I have never read her work, tho you make me think I should. My secret pleasure earlier this summer was Melissa de la Cruz's vampire series, Blue Bloods, because she melded the fashionista world of The Devil Wears Prada with Biblical references that explained the vampire hierarchy. There--an exchange... something for you in exchange for Shreve... I'll let you know what I think, will go buy one tomorrow. c

Chez Ami said...

I'm eager to hear what you think, c. De la Cruz montage of Bible, vampire, and fashion sounds like quite the strange and intoxicating brew. What would we do without books?

Anonymous said...

Hey, just a minute there! It’s not just women readers who appreciate the work of Anita Shreve; what about us guys? In The Pilot’s Wife she does a beautiful job with the flow of her main character’s emptiness and upwelling of currents from the subterranean depths. This is too fine a novel to be dissed as a romance...
That said, I know exactly what you mean about the addictive urge to rush out and pick up anotherpage-turner by a favourite writer. Something to do with dopamine and norepinephrine levels? It’s obviously time to have FDA regulate the more addictive writers out there, the literary equivalent of oxycodone like Anita Shreve, to make sure we don’t get in trouble! These are dangerous substances that need to be controlled.

Chez Ami said...


Good to hear that you guys are reading us women writers.

And perhaps we should be grateful that something as wonderful as a book can catalyze these addictive responses!