Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Body Surfing by Anita Shreve

I skied to the sea. It was below freezing, but Casco Bay was not frozen. Wolfe’s Neck Park in Freeport is beautiful in all seasons. It was an odd day to come home to read a summer beach book, but Body Surfing by Anita Shreve was a Christmas present (thanks, Diane and Dave!)

Body Surfing is set in New Hampshire, a little farther south down the coast from Maine. It is the fourth novel Anita Shreve has set in the same house. The author has a summer house in Maine and often writes about WASPy New England families in troubled relationships.

Pettingill Farmhouse (c. 1810) Freeport

Fortune’s Rocks is the name of Shreve’s fictional seaside town, and the title of the first book in the loosely connected series. The first novel is set in the turn of the 19th century. In 2004 I was living in London, and Fortune’s Rocks had been left on a bookshelf like flotsam and jetsam. The historical novel is well written, but I could not stomach the story: a 15-year-old girl falls for a married middle aged doctor. It is true love with tragic consequences and too creepy for me.

Shreve jumps a century ahead in The Pilot’s Wife. The house is now occupied by a school teacher, a commercial pilot and their teenaged daughter. In the opening scene, we learn that the pilot died in an explosion flying to the US from London. I was especially interested in this novel because my plane to London in 1988 never made it to New York City. It exploded over Lockerbie. The Pilot’s Wife is a gripping page turner in which the widow uncovers startling secrets about her husband.

The final occupants of the doomed house are an architect and his wife who summer by the sea. They have hired a 29-year-old widow, Sydney Sklar, to tutor their “slow” eighteen-year-old daughter. The 30-something brothers vie for Sydney’s affections. It sounds like a sappy romance novel, only the characters aren’t who they seem to be. Given the house’s history, you know this isn’t going to be a sunny story despite the summer beachside setting. Body Surfing is not only the title but also the central metaphor.

Shreve is a master of character detail. Like in a mystery novel, everyday items reveal secret stories. For example Sydney snoops in her employers’ bedroom and is surprised to find a small full-sized bed where a king bed could easily fit. Shreve’s writing is full of evocative descriptions. You’ll hear the roar of the surf, taste the salt on your tongue and feel the itch of sand in your swimsuit. Shreve takes the reader for a ride.

Unfortunately the realism of the details are at odds with the outrageous situations. Fate is over-stacked for tragedy, especially in one house. It is still a fun plot line to have one house running through several books. The setting becomes a character into itself, and I liked the quirky home better than its occupants. I have yet to read Sea Glass, another novel set at the ill-fated beach house. It was a happy coincidence that I ended up reading three connected novels; they do not need to be read in sequence.

Skiing along the Harraseeket River, photo by my son

Another setting I like to revisit is Freeport for cross-country skiing. Yes, there is more to Freeport than outlet shops. Five minutes away from the bustling town center is Pettingill Farm. The 1810 farmhouse is set on 140 acres by the mouth of the Harraseeket River where it opens onto Casco Bay. It’s a salt-water farm, including the fields to the estuary mudflats for clamming. Sadly, the Freeport Historical Society does not allow dogs anymore, so Stella had to stay home.

ANOTHER snow day today.

Blog Watch: A Book a Week (in my sidebar) reviewed the four related Shreve novels here.

Blog Talk: For any of you locals, I’ll be giving a talk for the Five Rivers Arts Alliance on February 9th about using the internet to market art. I’ll be sharing my two-year experience of blogging. The Frontier is a fun café/theater in Brunswick. Stop by and say hi after the talk if you can come. Details:

FEBRUARY 9, 6pm. FIVE RIVERS ARTS ALLIANCE MEMBERS MEETING will address “E-Commerce for Artists” at Frontier, 14 Maine St, Brunswick. The event will feature Five Rivers members and artists who will show how they use their websites and blogs to promote and sell their work. Presenters include Bath painter Sarah Greenier, Brunswick author and artist Sarah Laurence, and glassblowers Terrill & Charlie Jenkins of Tandem Glass, Dresden. Free for Five Rivers members; $5 for non-members. To reserve a spot, please email info@fiveriversartsalliance.org. Contact:www.fiveriversartsalliance.org.

37 comments:

A Cuban In London said...

Beautiful review and wonderful photos. Judging by the way you describe her books, I sense that her novels encapsulate inner tremors as opposed to volatile outbursts between family members and friends.

Thanks.

Greetings from London.

Tessa said...

Such excellent, erudite and insightful reviews on those novels! You do write marvellously, Sarah, painting pictures with your words. And your photographs are wonderfully evocative - I especially love the first one. I wanted to walk into it and 'be' there.

You've probably read Shreve's first novel, Eden Close? One of her best, I think.

Sarah Laurence said...

ACIL, you read well between the lines. Shreve’s characters tend to simmer more than boil.

Tessa, thank you! I’ve only read 3 of Shreve’s novels, but I’d like to read more. I’ll have to check out Eden Close one day. My reading list is always ridiculously long.

tina said...

How terribly eerie your plane blew up. I remember those days and what a an awful thing. That and the Gander Newfoundland crash which killed nearly 250 soldiers from my base. It is amazing how the world works and coincidences. P.S. Looks like you and Stella are having a bang up time in all the snow.

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Ah, I've been eyeing "The Pilot's Wife", so thanks for the review! Maine looks stunning with it's blue skies and snow. But that photo of dear Stella... sigh :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for another great blog entry.

_Sea Glass_ is also good, I think. It takes place in the first-half of the 20th century in the midst of the Great Depression. Wealthy characters lose much of their wealth, the lucky-rich (who somehow didn't lose so much money) carry on with their parties. Average people struggle, and the working-class bravely seeks to organize, and strike for more humane labor conditions and a living-wage.

Rather reminds me of today's situation.

The ending of _Sea Glass_ is brutal and heartbreaking. Her novels are great, but they do make me cry.

Sarah Laurence said...

Tina, Henry was waiting for me to arrive in London and was beside himself when he heard the news as it wasn’t clear at first which direction the plane was flying. My flight was of course rescheduled for the next day. I took it knowing the security would be top notch. How horrible to lose soldiers you knew that way!

I’m just about the head out for a ski with Stella before the snow comes down harder. We might get 18 inches!

JAPRA, A Pilot’s Wife is a grueling read of grief, but stick with it as the story will launch from the ashes, literally. Don’t read it on a plane! It's an Oprah book.

Anonymous, thanks for adding your review of Sea Glass. Shreve’s books do seem to be heart-wrenching. I love the title of Sea Glass, and the way Shreve uses the ocean in her writing.

Elizabeth said...

Your photos are going from strength to strength.
So eerily icy and luminous.
Please buy the farm house for me. Looks like the sort of austere place I long for.
I read "The Pilot's Wife" some years ago and enjoyed it.
A. Shreve is very good at suspense.

Cynthia said...

I enjoyed "A Light on Snow," also, have you read it? Shreve does not seem to be relaxing read but I enjoyed this novel and even sent a copy to one of my sisters. I enjoyed your review and photos- especially your dog with his happy face and legs sunk deep in the snow. I wish you great success on your talk.

Sarah Laurence said...

Thanks Elizabeth! Isn’t that old farmhouse by the water ideal? Given my solitary occupations, I’m better off having people out my door and the country a short drive away. It is nice to dream.

Cynthia, I haven’t read A Light on Snow, but once again her title is appealing. Today I’m watching the snow fall. Thanks for your encouragement!

david mcmahon said...

Beautiful photographs, Sarah

Bee said...

Stella looks so noble and handsome (in the way that women can be handsome) in her picture.

I've read all of the Shreve novels you mention . . . Sea Glass is particularly interesting, I think, because of the historical context (mills, immigrants, strikes). I very much like the way Shreve usea the house as a recurring "character."

troutbirder said...

Nice review. Everytime I look at this blog my reading list gets longer and longer. And what a beautiful setting for a cross county ski. I miss that dearly but my ortho who put the new knee in has it on his no no list for me. Oh well...

Sarah Laurence said...

David, welcome to my blog and thank you!

Bee, Stella has to be a handsome dog to make up for her less than handsome manners. I am now doubly interested in Sea Glass.

Troutbirder, you’d probably enjoy the historical elements in these novels. I always have more books to read than time to read them too. That’s too bad about you knee and skiing. My knees aren’t great either, but cross country on the flat puts less strain than downhill.

Rose said...

Your photos are beautiful, Sarah! As tired as I am of winter, you make the snow look appealing as you ski about, and Stella appears to be really enjoying it, too. She's a beauty.

Good luck with your talk.Using the internet to market art seems like a smart strategy to use these days. I recently found a bead artist through a blog; I love her jewelry, and I wouldn't have found it without blogging.

walk2write said...

Sarah, I agree with Bee about the Sea Glass novel. Shreve does a fantastic job of weaving the past and present together but doesn't sugar-coat things. Gritty is a good word to describe that novel, and sand is only a small part of the reason for it. It's good to see that you're taking advantage of winter's offering. Your pics of the snow along with your memory of the Lockerbie incident gave me a double dose of the shivers this morning. I love the way you personalise your book reviews, Sarah, as well as the fact that you're not afraid to give your honest but collegial opinion.

Sarah Laurence said...

Rose, winter is beautiful here but LONG. It is rather fun to be on the cutting edge of a new phenomenon. After two years, I’m considered an expert artist blogger – how strange!

W2W, so that would be 3 votes for Sea Glass – it will be on my list. I think the books that resonate with me are the ones that strike a personal chord. I’m so happy to hear you enjoy my reviews.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

"I skied to the sea". What a marvelous thing to be able to say!! You are indeed one lucky girl!

I found the book reviews interesting and will look for Shreve's books. I wonder if she has a particular house in her mind when she writes these?

Sarah Laurence said...

Pamela, I remember years ago reading an interview of Shreve in which she said that there was a real nunnery that inspired her. She borrowed elements from her vacation home in Maine and made up the rest. I wish I could remember where I saw it. I get the sense from your blog that you'd like her novels.

Kengot said...

All photos are beautiful and it seems like paints, not photos.

Sarah Laurence said...

Kengot, thank you! It’s funny: people often say that my photos look like paintings and my paintings look like photos. I never paint from photos, but I must have a certain way of looking at things and composing a shot.

Reya Mellicker said...

I wish I could come hear you speak, and I also wish we could go skiing together. I love that pic of you out in the blue white clean snow. Wow.

Dave King said...

Lovely, all of it, writing and photographs. A joy to read.

Sarah Laurence said...

Reya, welcome to my blog. I wish you could come to the talk and ski too. Thanks!

Dave, thank you!

Mama Shujaa said...

I enjoyed your reviews and the photographs. I read The Pilot's Wife a few years ago and reading your review here clarifies what I felt too about that house, I loved it. The curtains...I'll need to go pick it up again. :-)

It feels so peaceful here. A ton of wonderful information, thank you.

Mama Shujaa.

Sarah Laurence said...

Mama Shujaa, it’s been a few years since I read the Pilot’s Wife too. It was fun finding a reference to it in Body Surfing with an update on what happened to the characters. The pilot’s wife referred to her husband as being attractive and unusual, but Sydney in Body Surfing mentions seeing the pilot on the news and being struck by how ordinary he looked. I also got a different sense of the house from the 3 books. Shreve is all about subjective perception.

Alyson (New England Living) said...

I love the concept of the house as a constant character. I will check those out, but will stay away from the creepy one.

I love the splash of color in the white in the shot of your dog. Beautiful.

And that farmhouse...well, someday I wish to have a simple and lovely and historical place as that to call home.

Sarah Laurence said...

Alyson, I think you’d like Shreve’s writing as it’s all about family relationships in New England (sounds familiar?)

Shreve often pairs younger women with older men in her books, although not in Body Surfing. I read on her website that Shreve met her husband as a man when she was 13, and they are still together. That probably explains a lot.

Cynthia said...

Thanks for your Oasis visit and the book recommendation-"The Doctor Stories." I had read William Carlos Williams wrote autobiography but hadn't yet found any titles. Elizabeth is right about your photography-I don't know how you capture so much nuance.

Raymonty said...

Beautiful snow pictures.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cynthia, I took a class (Literature of Social Reflection) with Robert Coles who edited that collection. I believe they were autobiographical stories, but it’s been 20 years. I capture the nuance that exists in Maine – it really is that stunning if you know where to look.

Raymonty, welcome to my blog and thank you!

vicki archer said...

Wonderful images and I shall enjoy to read Anita Shreve's, 'Body Surfing' as I have read the others. Enjoy your beautiful landscape, xv.

Sarah Laurence said...

Vicki, thanks! Enjoyed the fashion show on your blog.

Phillip said...

Beautiful photos! I'm not familiar with this author. Thank you for the review!

Donna said...

I really like that beautiful photo of your dog in the snow. I've been meaning to read one of Anita Shreve's books for awhile. Thank you for the reviews that also helped serve as a reminder to me to give her a try soon.

Sarah Laurence said...

Phillip and Donna, thank you. I liked the Pilot’s Wife the best of the three.

Barrie said...

Sarah, I really like the idea of the house theme. For the most part, I enjoy everything Anita Shreve writes. But I had trouble with Fortune Rocks as well.