Why are some authors so uneven? Anita Shreve has written some of my favorite books, and some other books that I’ve thought were really forgettable. If only there was a way to tell in advance. I almost didn’t try this book because I found the last one of hers I read (Light on Snow) to be so mediocre. But this one was great! So what can you do? Well, keep trying them, I guess.
Shreve excels at creating a sense of unease and vague worry, an atmosphere of tension, in some of her books. Those are the ones I like the best, the ones where you just know things are going to end badly, but it is the slow uncovering of the trouble, bit by small bit, that keeps you going. There is a sensuality to some of her writing that I also really love, not in a romance-novel way, but a feeling that is present as a kind of mysterious undercurrent, as background noise perhaps. It’s a bit hard to express, but you know it when you encounter it.
I have really really loved three of her previous books: The Pilot’s Wife, Fortune’s Rocks, and Sea Glass. Interestingly, all three of these books take place in one house on the coast of New Hampshire at various times in history (TPW: late 20th century; FR late 19th century; SG early 20th century). Body Surfing joins the group as the newest entry. It takes place in the same house in the early 2000’s. I didn’t know this when I started it. I also didn’t know this when I started Fortune’s Rocks and Sea Glass. I loved that feeling of discovery, just as I did this time in Body Surfing, because Shreve reveals it subtly, with hints that a reader of the previous books will identify, but that new readers will miss. You never feel you are reading a series though, so it shouldn’t deter new readers from starting with any of the four books.
This is the story of a young woman who has been both divorced and widowed before the age of 30. With her life in a kind of holding pattern, she takes a job at the summer home of an affluent family as the live-in tutor/babysitter for a daughter with learning difficulties. It’s a modern day governess story, complete with the governess’s ambiguous status (not a guest, not a servant) and the sexual tension between the beautiful governess and the men in the family. Some may say it’s formulaic, but a formula can work well in the hands of a skilled story teller. I didn’t mind it at all; in fact, I enjoyed seeing how Shreve handled it.
(Book 31, 2008)