Anita Shreve

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"All He Ever Wanted"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark APR 30, 2004)

"Etna was a woman of secrets."

Sixty-four year old Nicholas Van Tassel is on a train traveling from New Hampshire to Florida to attend his sister's funeral. The year is 1933. While taking this journey, he's writing a journal documenting his attraction and subsequent marriage to Etna Bliss in the event that his son Nicodemus, who is about to become a father himself, should ask the one question that Van Tassel might find too difficult to answer. It seems his intent to present this bound journal as the answer. It is not until the end of the journal/book that we know what that question really is. In the interim it seems to be a mechanism for Van Tassel to explain what it is that he knows of Etna Bliss and to explain his behavior/actions and, subsequently, hers. He also makes note of the train trip and incidents that happen along the way.

Read excerptVan Tassel promises that he will write the truth, not fiction; no matter how painful and to that extent we do believe him. For certainly, no one would portray such a poor picture of one's self if he weren't telling the truth. As he is a bit pompous, he is certainly unaware of the subtle, but less than favorable, hints he gives away about himself while he writes. It's interesting because it seems that he can see moments of self-deception in hindsight, but then again, he doesn't exactly admit to it. So how is it that the reader is aware yet not the writer? Early in their courting, Etna and Van Tassel have a conversation about the use of the literary device in which a character "is so fundamentally blind that he does not even understand the true import of his utterances." Etna argues that she doesn't believe in that device since it makes the reader distrust the narrator. "How are we to know what truly happened? And besides, no one can be so self deceived" And Van Tassel answers back, "You don't think so?" If nothing else, it's an ironic passage; but could also be a hint to the reader to keep an eye out.

All He Ever Wanted is the story of one's man's obsession for a woman and the lengths that he is willing to go through to possess her for himself, even, or ignoring that, his passion is unrequited. Though I'm not so sure that is the whole story behind the title. You could also say that all he ever really wanted was the Dean's post at Thrupp College, which is all tied to together with the telling of this story and that desire existed prior to meeting Etna and it's eventual gain was partly how he lost Etna for good. This is something readers may have different opinions on and one aspect of the book that would make for good discussion in a reading group.

Van Tassel's obsession begins one winter evening in 1899 when he first sees Etna Bliss during the melee of a shocking hotel fire, where he had been dining when it started and was lucky enough to escape. As he tells us, "My desire for this unknown woman was so immediate and keen and inappropriate that it quite startled me." Van Tassel comes to her aid by finding a cab (carriage) to drive the three to their home: Etna, along with her young niece and her aunt who has inhaled too much smoke. He soon discovers that the aunt is the wife of one of his fellow faculty members and thus from the start sees himself calling on Professor Bliss in the very near future with an ulterior motive. The next morning while holding his first class and discussing the tragic fire, he spies Etna out the window. He decides to cancel class and contrives a reason to stop by the Bliss household. Although at the time it seems an ordinary event of a love-struck man, we soon start to see a pattern of deception and manipulation, one that he knows he will be telling us more about. As he admits from the beginning, "passion erodes and enhances character in equal-measure, and not slowly, but instantly, and in such a manner that what is left is not in balance but is thrown desperately out of kilter in both directions." And that is essentially what this story is about - a love so out-of-kilter that Nicholas Van Tassel will do and does anything to possess this woman, finally misstepping so wrongly that he ultimately loses her (and more) forever.

Although, Van Tassel certainly presents that his behavior is a result of this out-of-kilter love, there are hints that he is not as moral of man as he'd like us to believe. When he enrolled in Dartmouth College, he immediately tried to pass himself off as a native New Englander, hiding his New York upbringing. This is a minor offense, but surely there are other hints to his true nature throughout the story that tells us that Etna Bliss did not cause his eroded character, that it was always flawed.

Certainly, the reader can't help but see Van Tassel as pitiful (as does possibly Etna). The truth is Professor Van Tassel is not all that likable, though he is a captivating storyteller. He knows that much of his behavior when it comes to Etna had not been honorable, though he seems to think that his behavior was not all that unjustified as a husband in "those days." In contrast there are as few characters that he tells us about (and usually in a disparaging way) that we would consider truly noble, truly honorable. Without doubt, we can see that Van Tassel's venality extends beyond matters directly concerned with Etna Bliss, again revealing his true self.

Structuring this novel as a journal means that Van Tassel can only give his own point of view and not Etna's. However, he does attempt to imagine what she was thinking and he shares with us certain facial expressions he saw on her, that as much as he'd rather not admit to having witnessed, he did and it does give us insight into Etna's character, though it is colored through Van Tassel's eyes. There are a set of letters that he shares with us that occur between Etna and a visiting Professor that reveal about the most we will ever know about Etna's secret life. As we read the letters, a bunch of questions pop up. Shreve skillfully has Van Tassel ask these same questions of the letters in the next chapter and though we will never know the real truth, we accept Van Tassel's imaginings as they do ring true to all that he has told us up to this point. In the end, Etna does not come off as any more of a sympathetic character than Van Tassel, though it is easier to applaud her moves. Etna is too secretive and Van Tassel is too manipulating and possessive. But, contrary to what one might think, this does not make for bad reading. In fact, there is certain amount of suspense as we wait for Van Tassel to reveal the whole shocking and sad story.

I think this novel is somewhat unconventional in that Nicholas Van Tassel does not "grow" during the process of journaling the events of his marriage. Normally one would expect that he'd have a certain amount of new insight, but instead, one gets the impression that he has rehashed these same events so many times in his head the process of writing it down gives no further relief or insight. (But does entertain us.) There is one small hint at the end, "I see that I have revealed more than I intended, both to the reader and to myself, that perhaps it is not a suitable thing to pass on to a child." Another character might take this moment for some self-reflection, but not Nicholas. Instead he decides that the journal is too melodramatic, desides where to stick it on his bookshelf, and we're not even sure if he'll share it with his progeny.

The book is an enjoyable read as it's another demonstration of Shreve's expertise in describing the details of a time period. The book essentially starts at the turn of the century and then jumps to fourteen years later. At the beginning of the novel, all travel (even the trip to the White Mountains for the honeymoon) is done in carriages; and, then later Etna and Van Tassel are driving the early automobiles or "machines." Since the story is narrated by a man who began teaching English Literature and Rhetoric at the turn of the 20th, the prose is structured as such. And though it adds a certain amount of formality to his character, he admits that he shuns the modern language conventions as employed in the current day (1933). But by using this more formal prose it helps create a better sense of certain events and decisions for it was a far different time than our modern day, especially in matters of sexual propriety.

Essentially this novel is about coincidence and fate as much as it is an exploration of love and obsession. I found this to be an absolutely satisfying read between the complicated character development, the language, the setting and time period. I do believe that there is enough here at different levels to enable meaty book group discussions. All He Ever Wanted would also be a good introduction to those who have yet to try this author. Though this writer is often passed off as "bestselling," this book could find a niche with those who like their novels more literary.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 142 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from All He Ever Wanted at MostlyFiction.com

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"Sea Glass"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark APR 02, 2002)

"Eventually, Honora collects so much sea glass that she has to put it in a bowl. But in the bowl, the colors jumble together and take on the hues of the bits below and, on the whole, don't amount to much. She experiments by putting the shards on the bed sheet, spread apart, and discovers that their true colors emerge on a clean, white background."

On a June day in 1929, 20-year-old Honora is about to enter the door of a weathered beach house with her husband Sexton Beecher and thus into her newly wedded life. She does not know her husband, outside of the eight visits when he drove from the New Hampshire Seacoast up to the Lakes Region and they courted in his '26 Buick. They met by chance when he came into the bank one day and she was working at the window. After awhile she stopped thinking of him as the typewriter salesman. Though he is optimistic about his chosen line, and has saved enough to own a car, Honora notices that his clothes are frayed at the cuffs. She hopes he is a good man.

The house is not what they expect. On their sixth date, Sexton told her of his good luck to be offered the chance to live in their own home in exchange for the upkeep of the property. They were unaware that the house had been abandoned four years earlier and that it would lack all furniture, except for an out-of-tune piano at one end of a large room and a mattress on the floor upstairs. But the location of the house is perfect, it is at the end of a beach, not too far from Ely and the mill town Ely Falls and it will allow them to save to buy their own home. Although Honora has been working since she was sixteen, it is understood that her task now is to make the house livable, and, to make a marriage.

Down the beach, socialite Vivian Burton is just checking into the Highland Hotel after taking a train from Boston; the same thing she has done every summer for the past twenty years. At nearly 29, she is unconventionally single having passed on the few serious proposals she's had in the past, not particularly believing that there is such a thing as a good marriage. Though booze is under prohibition, her and her rich set of friends have made it a lifestyle to drink so much that they aren't sure what happened the night before. And so the summer begins with an invitation to a pre-lunch sidecar from Dickie Peets and a morning after hangover complete with images of a naked Dickie Peets in a fetal position on the bathroom floor.

McDermott is one of the people who lives and works in Ely Falls. He is nearly deaf from the factory and his nerves are raw; he's fairly sure he has an ulcer. Though he is only 20, he is already a loom fixer reporting only to the second hand. He's been working in the mill since he was twelve, right after his dad "pissed off" to parts unknown. To understand people he has to watch mouths as they speak. But that doesn't stop him from joining the day shift - warp twisters and slasher tenders and mulespinners and carders - for a drink at the speak, although he does not use up his entire pay packet like many. As much as he'd like to take off like his dad, his mom has recently died; so he stays to help his 19-year-old sister Eileen raise his brothers hoping to keep them out of the factories. Though hesitant, he decides to attend the secret meeting being organized by the union leaders.

Francis also works at the mill in Ely Falls and he's not even twelve yet, though he lies and says he is. He is the youngest in his family to work, although not the youngest child. His sister is still lucky enough to be in school. Things changed last year when his father died and so his mother has to work the night shift at the factory, leaving the young boy only fifteen minutes a day to see her. As a bobbin keeper, Francis is the lowest paid in the family, so it his job to do the morning chores that are most at risk to cause one to be late for work. He makes the lunches for all of the older children, and then when they leave, washes the kitchen floor, then sprints off to the factory before the gate is closed. He always makes it. And once there he switches from the French is speaks at home to English. One Sunday, while avoiding chores, he watches men sneak into a neighbor's house. Later he runs an errand for McDermott, who is one of these men, and this begins a friendship between the two.

When the stock market crashes Vivian is unaffected. But Dickie Peets disappears overnight leaving Vivian to take over a house he's renovated on the beach. Although Honora has an inkling of the true nature of the man she has married, she is unaware of the length and risk that his dreams drive him, so, in the end, they too are affected by the turn in the economy and inevitably so is the nature of their marriage. For the first six months their marriage consisted of "that ordinary and innocent universe of checked oilcloth and women's magazines, of erotic baths and gumdrop packets, of trust and hope and modest dreams." And then it is gone.

Although by Christmas of that year, through happenstance, each one has met or seen the others, it is a full year from when Honora and Sexton move into the Fortune's Rocks home that the unlikely happens; they all come together under one roof and become key players in a dangerous strike against the factory in Ely Mills. Whereas they should be struggling due to the strike and depression, they are having the time of their life. "War is like that," Vivian says. "Men often speak about how they felt most alive -- and most in love, for that matter -- during wartime."

This is the third novel that Anita Shreve sets in the same house. The events in Fortune's Rocks take place at the turn of the 20th century and part of the novel describes the conditions of the mill, the boarding house and the Franco families in nearby Ely Falls. Thirty years later the conditions are no better, and if anything, are worse. The mill owners are threatened by competition in the South and thus they begin to require their employees to work longer hours for less money. This forces more of the families to put their children to work. And this is had been at a time that the economy was flourishing and the mill owners had prospered; now the times are worse. Thus the union leaders and communist party want to get in and organize the workers even if the Yankees and Francos offer their own special challenges; the Yankees won't ask for handouts and the Francos want to keep sending their children to work.

If you travel through New England, you'll see many old brick mills along rivers and canals that have been turned into residential and commercial condominiums. Although now they hold a certain amount of romantic value and are prized for their views, Anita Sheve's novels remind us the horrible working conditions these buildings once housed. Reading these novels also helps explain why it is so hard for me to admit that I am of Franco descent. My grandfather, worked in one of these mills starting at the age of twelve after his father died leaving him to support his mother and younger sisters. I do not know much about him or how he came to live here (I must ask!) except that he too was partially deaf, spoke both French and English, and I strongly suspect spent much of his "pay packet" on after shift drinks. There is a mix of inborn shame and unspoken prejudice for many of French Canadian descent.

I am impressed with how well that Anita Shreve captures the essence of the time period in which she writes. If you have read Fortune's Rock, you will find that Sea Glass is a lighter and easier read because the language and sentiments are less archaic, but still has a feel of an earlier period than our current time:

"And I put milk and eggs and a nice leg of lamb and a chicken and what not in the Frigidaire."
"Marvelous," Vivian says.
"Your change is on the counter."
"Terrific."
"And Mr. Ellis got the beach wagon all tuned up. He took it to the battery station just this morning."
"Many thanks," Vivian says.

In this novel, her style is to sketch each of the major characters in alternating vignettes. She treats Honora, Sexton, Vivian, McDermott and Francis like the shards of the worn sea glass found on the beach, examining each for its individual mystery, beauty and intrinsic nicks; holding each up so that we can see their true colors. We can guess from the start that Sexton's character weakness will be its own demise, but this creates a tension for the story line right up to the end. Throughout the novel, there is Honora's collection of sea glass, with the subtle significance as each interacts with her and the glass. Plus, there is her deft handling of the class stratification at the cusp of the Depression. Although I have discussed much on the historical setting, Sea Glass is nonetheless very much a literary novel. It explores the serendipitous nature of how and when any two people meet as well as the universal themes of honor, betrayal, attraction and causation. I think most people will be very satisfied reading this novel because it really does everything that it seems a novel should do.

As mentioned, this is the third novel that Anita Shreve sets in the same house. Fortune's Rocks begins in 1899 and is about headstrong Olympia Biddeford, who at fifteen has an affair with a married man three times her age. The Pilot's Wife is the first one that she wrote in this "series" and is set in 1998. Prior to Sea Glass, I had not been at all curious about her novels, but now I plan to read the other two as well as The Weight of Water.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 158 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Sea Glass at MostlyFiction.com



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

*Set in same NH Beach House

Nonfiction:

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About the Author:

Anita ShreveAnita 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.

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