Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Anita Shreve: Varying a Storyline’s Peak Action

Anita Shreve is the author of 17 novels plus 2 non-fiction works. The Pilot’s Wife (1998) made it into Oprah’s Book Club and Resistance (1995) was made into a film. I have read three of her novels and I find it interesting how each one places the apex of action at different parts of the story.

Testimony (2008) starts off with a bang (forgive the bad pun) when a private school headmaster gets ahold of a sex tape involving four of his pupils—one underage girl and three older boys. The rest of the story deals with the aftermath. This book was, by far, my favorite.

A Change in Altitude (2009) has a storyline whose crescendo follows the story’s main event itself—a mountain climb. One of the pinnacles—the shocking death of one of the characters—occurs right in the middle of the book. With the well-rounded characters and detailed description of life in Kenya, this book also ranks high among my recent reads.

The third, The Weight of Water (1997) received several accolades including wins for The New England Book Award, The Pen/L.L. Winship Award, and a shortlist spot for The Orange Prize. Yet, I liked this one the least. In fact, I quit in the middle and tossed it aside for several weeks.

The difficulty was the slow build of drama. We have a woman on a boat taking pictures of several tiny islands off the New England Coast—islands whose main claim to fame is hosting a double murder in the previous century. Mrs. M.C. is accompanied on this endeavor by her husband, young daughter, brother-in-law, and his girlfriend—who, by the way, may or may not be fooling around with the M.C.’s husband.

The narrative is interrupted over and over by the M.C. thinking about the facts behind the old murder case—well done, but jarring nonetheless. Later whole chapters are devoted to letters written by the sole survivor of the slaughter and that’s where I started to lose it. These letters are as dull and dreary as the 1800’s life on a rock they describe.

But I kept going. The back cover promised tragedy and I wanted my money’s worth. Finally, things got moving in the last few chapters. Boy, did they ever. It got so tense I had to skip ahead to see what happened, something I almost never, ever do.

I got my tragedy and then some. But, I was a little miffed because Shreve puts character A in mortal danger, and while the rest of the cast is distracted saving A, character B dies. Hmmm, where have I seen/read that before? Seriously, help me out here. I know I’ve seen this before.

Anyway, I do understand why The Weight of Water won those awards. The setting is a character itself and how the dual storylines of past and present complement each other is a work of art. Comparing and contrasting how unfounded jealousy leads to death in these two storylines would make an excellent term paper. Seeing as my school days are far behind me, I'll leave this as an exercise for someone else.

Where do the peaks of action/emotion occurs in your writing or favorite books?


  1. I haven't had a chance to read this author yet.

    I don't care much for a slow buildup of drama. Sometimes I do stick it out and a book becomes wonderful, but I want the beginning to reel me in.

  2. "TESTIMONY" is another winner book of Anita Shreve, the story from each person's perspective makes it very interesting and let's you see how different people see the "incident" in different ways, and how one incident was the catalyst for the whole book and not the initial incident that you think it is.

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