Anita Shreve

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"The Weight of Water"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark NOV 12, 2002)

"The Isles of Shoals, an archipelago, lie in the Atlantic, ten miles southeast off the New Hampshire coast at Portsmouth. The islands measure three and a half miles north and south by one and a half miles east and west. There are nine islands at high tide, eight at low; White and Seavey are connected. The largest island looked to its residents like a fat pig wallowing in the sea, and hence the name of Hog. Smuttynose, our destination, derived its name from a clump of seaweed on the nose of a rock extending into the ocean."

In March 1873 two women were bloodily murdered on Smuttynose; one woman survived by hiding with her dog in a sea cave. Louis Wagner was the man accused and later tried and hanged for the murders. All the evidence used in convicting him was circumstantial; to this day there is some doubt that the murders could have happened as the prosecution conveyed. For Wagner to have murdered these woman he would have had to row from Portsmouth out to the Isle of Shoals, which means that he would have had to row 10 miles, including going up the Piscataqua River to get out to the sea from Portsmouth. Unless the ebb and flow of the tide was with him in each direction, from my experience rowing against the current of the Piscataqua River would be near impossible. Plus he had to return that same night. It was estimated that this would have taken 13 hours. Nevertheless, the oar locks were worn on a new dory he is said to have used, he had a button in his pocket from one of the women's nightgown, blood on his shirt, and not a single witness came forward to say that they saw him that night in Portsmouth. The one witness to the murders, the surviving woman Maren Hontvedt, claimed that she heard one of the victims call his name. So he hanged for the crime, declaring his innocence to the end.

For the people at that time and location, this was as much a "crime of the century" as our O.J. Simpson trial; no matter the verdict, there is always going to be questions as to what really happened on that March night in 1873.

Anita Shreve sets the events of the novel in 1995, to coincide with the time in which the O.J. Simpson trial concludes. Jean's assignment is to shoot some photos of Smuttynose for a sidebar article about this previous century's still debated sensational murder. Rather than hiring a boat, her husband, Thomas, suggests that they ask his brother Richard to take them on his sailboat, a Morgan 41. Thus, five are aboard the Morgan that summer -- Jean, Thomas their 5-year-old daughter Billie, Richard and his latest girlfriend, Adeline.

Jean, our narrator, is actually telling this story one year later. "When I was here before, something awful was being assembled, but I didn't know it then." It's easy to see from the start that Jean is jealous of her husband and Adeline and a bit suspicious. Thomas and Adeline seem to know each other better than two people who have just met. Thomas is a poet, practically emeritus since he hasn't written in some time, and Adeline seems to have a keen knowledge of Thomas' work. Then, she learns from her brother-in-law, that he doesn't expect his relationship with Adeline to last much longer.

As the state of Jean's marriage is revealed (or her perception of it), the events on Smuttynose are also being laid out. When Jean goes to do some research at that Portsmouth Athenaeum, she finds a translated letter in which Maren Christensen Hontvedt, the survivor, tells the story of her young life in Norway, how she ends up marrying John Hontvedt, about the five years of living on Smuttynose in the duplex house, of when her sister Karen comes to live with them, and then her brother and his new wife, right up until the night of the murders. Through this letter, Shreve gives a fictional account of the life of Maren Hontvedt yet provides an entirely plausible, if not shocking, account of the events (and the true motivation) that could have happened on the night of the murders.

Shreve has Jean tell us the details of both her story and that of Maren's simultaneously, easily moving back and forth in time, not providing any breaks or transitions between the two. Both are told with the same pensive voice as if the facts that are known are the facts that must be real, and as if to Jean it doesn't matter which she tells as they both come to a wrong and horrible conclusion. And as expected, both rise in pitch at the turning point, when that "something awful that was being assembled," occurs. By having both stories be coterminous, Shreve brings out as to how an emotionally blind sighted, irrational moment, can bring about unforeseen tragedy. And there is always hope that if one can finally tell the story that an impossible weight will be lifted.

I was naturally curious about this novel because of its topic and having known the story of the murders all my adult life. The first time I heard about them was during a summer session Oceanography field trip when I was a University of New Hampshire student. Always at the heart of the retelling is whether or not a man could have rowed to and from the Isle of Shoals that night. It is something you think about when you are anchored up in Gosport Harbor looking at the one house still standing on Smuttynose or going ashore to look for Blackbeard's treasure. Or while you are paddling a canoe up the Piscataqua (with the current, because against is impossible) or while navigating your own inflatable Zodiac boat up the back channel into Little Harbor and then out to the Atlantic ocean -- you can't help but wonder if this is the way that Wagner would have taken to avoid the current?

One of the things that I found very interesting is that at one point Shreve has the five of them take Richard's Zodiac into Portsmouth for lunch. Never have I known of anyone who went from the Isle of Shoals into Portsmouth via a motorized inflatable boat. In fact, I once decided to jump into my Zodiac that was being towed on the back of the sailboat I was on to say hi to some people who were sailing in the vicinity. By the time I reached them, the fog had descended hiding the boat that I came from, so I took advantage of the eerie, isolated moment and jokingly asked if they had any Grey Poupon (hence becoming known as the mustard lady). Anyhow, having a Zodiac out so close to the Isle of Shoals and seemingly having come from shore shocked these sailors because it just isn't done. But, I imagine that Shreve chose to have her boat load go into Portsmouth via the Zodiac, because how else can you believe that a man could row there and back in one night?

I could not separate my own knowledge and experiences while reading this book, so when I say I really enjoyed it, keep in mind that I'm homesick for the NH-Maine seacoast and that I was bound to enjoy it by the mere default of its setting; it brought back many of my own memories. But even at that, I have a hard time imagining someone not liking this novel or its style. It is a retelling of a sensational true life tale. Just to read Shreve's fabricated letter by Maren Hontvedt's is worth it. I read in one Portsmouth news article something about a coalition that wants to open up this case because Shreve has accomplished that reasonable doubt that Louis Wagner surely had no chance to get at the time of his trial. But there is more to the novel than just the murder; there is the greater contemplation of that slow motion moment when tragedy strikes and alters our lives forever; the backward look at it and how it is the inevitable order of one event after another that leads to such a moment. However, despite Jean's hope, no amount of retelling the story will change that order.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 240 reviews


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*Set in same NH Beach House

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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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