This is kind of an odd book. It is the fictional “memoir” of Nicholas Van Tassel, a professor at a small New England college in the late 1800’s. who falls desperately in love with a woman with a past. In spite of the fact that she admittedly does not love him, he insists on marrying her and believes that he will convince her that she can be happy. With each step that he takes to bring them closer, he repels her until the final, fatal act of desperation has a final, if not fatal result.
There is definitely a suspenseful air about the book. The reader is compelled by almost the same drive as the need to see the details of a horrible car accident — you know it will be awful and you’ll regret it, but you have to see it anyway. So, too, you have to find out exactly to what depths Nicholas will go. And the depths are somewhat shocking.
I think an essential element to a serious book is, ironically, humor. The best books that I’ve read have combined sharp, witty humor with a serious plot. Characters that are funny and warm are more captivating and engaging. Strict seriousness is, in my mind, just serious and frankly, boring. This is a book that could have benefitted from an infusion of humor, to really keep the reader connected.
Basically, the idea is interesting but not fully delivered.
I am not sure why, but I am bothered by the writing of novels in the present tense. I guess that when someone is telling a story, by definition, it’s happened already, so why tell it as if it’s happening RIGHT NOW? I do usually get past it and just get into the story, but I think that it took me an inordinate amount of time to get past it in this particular book. It may be that it just took a bit of time to get into this story in the first place, but I’m not sure.
Anyway, this story is about a young woman, Sydney, who is living with a family at their beach house because she’s tutoring their 18 year old daughter, Julia, to prepare her for the SAT’s. During the course of the summer, Sydney is introduced to Julia’s two older brothers, one of whom she becomes romantically involved and the other becomes alienated from the family. There are interesting twists of events that bring the family closer and tear them apart and Sydney becomes very entwined in these events.
I think what finally drew me in is the relationships that develop among the different characters. Julia’s father and Sydney, for example, grow to have a very warm, mutually respectful relationship and there are a few very tender moments between the two of them.
Bottom line: in my opinion, it’s an interesting story but if you don’t have a lot of time to read, I wouldn’t put this as a priority.
Testimony by Anita Shreve
Another gripping novel by Anita Shreve! The author takes a not-so-unheard-of story — teenagers doing something risky and foolish and suffering tragic consequences — and tells it in a very unusual way — a composite of “testimony” given by all of the characters who are directly or indirectly affected by the incident. The story begins with a headmaster of a private boarding school watching a videotape of a group of his students drunk and having a complicated sexual encounter. The rest of the story is told in a variety of voices and from each of the different characters and as each of the narratives unfurl, the story is given context and depth as well as intrigue and raw emotion. The characters are complex and very human and the reader becomes entangled in their tragedy. By the end, it is very hard not to feel strongly about some of the characters and I know I certainly choked up at the culmination of the story.
I find Shreve to be such a versatile author. Like Jodi Picoult, she takes on complex issues and creates a story from the perspective of different characters. In this way, both authors are able to build arguments and sympathies for the various aspects of a controversial issue, highlighting the difficulty for resolution. The reader has to be active and thinking to balance each perspective with the other and to decide which side rings most true. Often, each one does.
Sea Glass, by Anita Shreve
Sea Glass is a quietly powerful novel that is centered around the crash of the stock market in 1929 and the growth of unions in its aftermath. It is also a story of honesty and trust and how the absence of both can unravel a relationship. The tale is told from the point of view of different characters who really are the strength of this novel. They are endearing (or not, in some cases) and it is hard not to come to love them for the quirks that make each of them so real. There is Honora, the main character and who is as her name suggests, tragically honorable and who just gets on with whatever it is she is dealt. There is her neighbor and friend, the loyal Vivian, who is rich but generous and kind almost in spite of herself. There is the young Alphonse, who stole my heart just as he’d stolen McDermott’s heart and made me want to take care of him as the tender McDermott had. As these characters are eventually brought together by circumstance, the story becomes woven more and more tightly and the suspense of what is to come rises. Beyond the story itself, the characters’ individual situations also enable the reader to appreciate the extremes of wealth and abject poverty that people experienced during that era (which unfortunately, sound all too familiar after our more recent stock market debacle). The reader is very subtly pulled into the story and held there with such force that you actually want to continue to hold onto the characters after it’s over.
This is a beautiful, albeit sad, story that is beautifully written. Read it!