BODY SURFING by Anita Shreve

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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.

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