See "bookmarks" below for more of our reviews of Anita Shreve's novels.
(Reviewed by Eleanor Bukowsky NOV 2, 2008)
"The town exploded. There's no other word for it. We were in the news ten days running, and even after that there were articles. It was like one of those stories you see about miners who've been trapped and all the town folk are waiting to find out what happened. Or like the story of a bus going over the bridge, taking children with it. We were a town under siege."
A firestorm erupts when a dormitory parent confiscates a tape in which three boys engage in intimate acts with a fourteen-year-old girl at a private school. The young people who appear in the tape attend Avery Academy in Vermont. Anita Shreve's Testimony examines this incident from every possible angle, using a Rashomon-like approach. She demonstrates how difficult it is to learn the truth when various witnesses offer conflicting opinions about what happened and who should bear the responsibility.
Mike Bordwin, the headmaster of Avery Academy, is shocked when he views the tape and sees Robert Leicht, and Silas Quinney, both eighteen, and James Robles, nineteen, behaving inappropriately with a pretty young freshman after an evening of heavy drinking. The author provides many perspectives besides Bordwin's, including those of the participants, the parents, Silas's girlfriend, a newspaper reporter, a roommate of the victim, a police officer, a cafeteria worker, an ER nurse, the dean of students, and a law professor. It soon becomes apparent that the story changes according to who tells it, and that there is plenty of blame to go around.
Using a straightforward and powerful prose style, Anita Shreve explores a number of thought-provoking and timely themes: The abuse of alcohol among young people is "starting at an earlier age and [is] both more habitual and more intense that it had been just a decade before;" students who attend private schools and who are athletically talented may behave recklessly because they feel "privileged;" when reporters grab hold of a scandalous story, they often transform a human tragedy into a media circus; our misdeeds may destroy not only our lives but also those of our friends and family. Testimony is a searing and powerful indictment of a society that, in many ways, has lost its moral compass, and for that, everyone pays a price. "A single action can cause a life to veer off in a direction it was never meant to go."
- Amazon readers rating: from 234 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Testimony at the Hachette Book Group
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(Reviewed by Terez Rose NOV 2, 2008)
Anita Shreve, in her thirteenth novel, Body Surfing, returns to terrain her regular readers will instantly recognize: the New Hampshire coast, the oceanfront cottage made familiar in The Pilot’s Wife, Fortune’s Rocks and Sea Glass. Emotional geography is also revisited in the form of bereaved protagonist Sydney, recently widowed, once divorced, all before the tender age of twenty-nine. Now, struggling to regroup and find firmer footing in life, Sydney takes a summer job as in-house tutor to eighteen-year-old Julie, the beautiful but intellectually-challenged daughter of the wealthy Edwards family. While patriarch Mark Edwards is kind, unassuming and easy to talk to, his WASP wife is cold and off-putting toward the half-Jewish, floundering Sydney, instructing Sydney to focus on preparing Julie for her October SATs that will get her into the “right” college (a goal Sydney recognizes as futile).
The household’s relative peace is disrupted with the arrival of the Edwards’s two grown sons. Ben, thirty-five, works in corporate real estate in Boston. Jeff, four years his junior, is a political science professor at M.I.T.. The two invite Sydney to join them body surfing the night of their arrival, but an anonymous, lingering grope in the dark water leads Sydney to suspect and subsequently mistrust Ben. Jeff appears more guileless and, further, has a girlfriend. Sydney, disconcerted by the new arrivals, focuses her attention on Julie whom, she discovers, harbors a surprising aptitude for art composition. Julie blossoms under Sydney’s attention, growing more confident, but when she disappears, leaving behind a cryptic note, Mrs. Edwards is quick to cast blame on Sydney. Distraught, the family descends to bickering, with Ben and Jeff arguing fiercely, over Jeff’s recent break up with his girlfriend, over his even more recent advances toward Sydney, issues that appear to ignite old hostilities between the brothers.
Julie is found safe, in Montreal, aligned with a lesbian lover (a rather puzzling development in the story), with whom she chooses to stay. Sydney, having lost her tutoring job, returns with Jeff to Boston and stays. Romance ensues. Wedding bells sound. But, being an Anita Shreve novel, the reader understands that this is not to be Sydney’s happily ever after, certainly not in the middle of the book. Betrayals, revelations, periods of deeper ungroundedness—these are to be the hapless Sydney’s fate.
Body Surfing is a departure in style from Shreve’s other bestsellers. The story is told through terse, often disjointed paragraphs, little sound bytes of information, evidenced from the opening lines:
“Three o’clock, the dead hour. The faint irritation of sand grit between bare foot and floorboards. Wet towels hanging from bed posts and porch railings. A door, caught in a gust, slams, and someone near it emits the expected cry of surprise. A southwest wind, not the norm even in August, sends stifling air into the many rooms of the old summer house.”
Shreve does not waste a single word. Bringing objects and scenery to life with deft, evocative language has always been her strength and here every paragraph, sparse as it might be, sets a tactile image. One might even argue that the choppiness of the language is intended to mirror the fragmented emotional terrain of the divorced, bereaved Sydney, who surely must be living in a similar state of fractured feelings. While this style is effective and makes for a compelling read, I found myself missing the more luxurious paragraphs and scenes of Fortune’s Rocks, which was so beautifully crafted, so successful in portraying fully actualized, lovably flawed characters.
This is a novel Shreve’s regulars will either love—because it does still bear the trademark of her exquisite description, the smooth flowing writing that is neither too literary or too formulaic—or hate, because it is not Fortune’s Rocks or The Pilot’s Wife. The characters in Body Surfing are not given an in-depth treatment; they do not evolve, and indeed, some of their motivations and actions seem flimsy, improbably detached.
I will place myself in a third category, a reader who felt aggravated by the first read, tossed the book aside, then went back to read it a second time. Once I’d gotten over my expectation of what a Shreve novel “should” be and had a better overall view of the story, I found much to appreciate. For example, what initially bothered me about the lack of palpable chemistry between Sydney and Jeff, coupled with Ben’s unlikable behavior, turned out to serve the story surprisingly well. Another facet I found touching on the second read is the relationship Sydney has with patriarch Mark Edwards, whose interest in the old house’s history soon becomes her own. What seemed too digressive at first read became a fascinating summary of the house’s past occupants: the characters and stories of Fortune’s Rocks, The Pilot’s Wife and Sea Glass, a reunion of sorts that will please readers who’ve read these novels.
Body Surfing has sparked a storm of comments at Amazon over whether this is one of Shreve’s best or weakest novels. Regardless of opinion, it has people reading and thinking, speculating and arguing, sometimes quite heatedly. Always a good sign in a book.
- Amazon readers rating: from 129 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Eden Close (1989)
- Strange Fits of Passion (1991)
- Where or When (1993)
- Resistance (1995)
- The Weight of Water (1997)
- The Pilot's Wife (1998) *
- Fortune's Rocks (1999) *
- The Last Time They Met (2001)
- Sea Glass (2002) *
- All He Ever Wanted (2003)
- Light on Snow (2004)
- A Wedding in December (2005)
- Body Surfing (2007) *
- Testimony (2008)
- A Change of Altitude (2009)
- Rescue ( 2010)
- Stella Bain (November 2013)
*Set in same NH Beach House
- Remaking Motherhood: How Working Mothers are Shaping Our Children's Future (1987)
- Women Together, Women Alone: the Legacy of the Consciousness-Raising Movement (1989)
Movies from books:
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- Official website for Anita Shreve (includes excerpts and more)
- Boston.com interview with Anita Shreve
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Weight of Water
- MostlyFiction.com review of Sea Glass
- MostlyFiction.com review of All He Ever Wanted
- MostlyFiction.com review of Light on Snow
- MostlyFiction.com review of A Wedding in December
- Reading Guide for Body Surfing
- MostlyFiction.com review of A Change in Altitude
- MostlyFiction.com review of Rescue
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About the Author:
Anita Shreve was born in 1946. She grew up outside of Boston, Massachusetts, graduating from Dedham, Massachusetts high school and attended Tufts University.
She began writing fiction while working as a high school teacher. Although one of her first published stories, "Past the Island, Drifting," was awarded an O. Henry Prize in 1975, Shreve felt she couldn't make a living as a fiction writer so she became a journalist. She traveled to Africa, and spent three years in Kenya, writing articles that appeared in magazines such as Quest, US, and Newsweek. Back in the United States, she turned to raising her children and writing freelance articles for magazines. She expanded a couple of these articles and published her two nonfiction books. When she published her first novel, she gave up journalism and wrote fiction full time. Her novel The Pilot's Wife was selected by the Oprah's Book Club in 1999 and a movie has been adapted from The Weight of Water.
She taught creative writing at Amherst College in the 1990s.
She is married to the man that she met when she was 13. She has two children and three step-children.
She lives in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.