My friends know me as an unapologetic reader of romances.
Though I prefer my romance cloaked in a literary guise, as in Michael Ondaatje's Orientalist fantasy, The English Patient (a favorite from my schoolgirl days), I am not above supermarket paperbacks (the kind featuring well-muscled men embracing tousled, buxom women on the cover). I will even occasionally devour the short stories in the back of women's magazines (such as Cosmo or Glamour). And they move me. Though I understand their tricks, these stories still make me cry.
I cried through the final thirty pages of Anita Shreve's new novel, Body Surfing (Little, Brown). At 29, Sydney Sklar, the novel's narrator, is both a divorcee and a widow. Numbed by tragedy, Sydney seems content to drift with the current. When Sydney takes a position as a summer tutor, she drifts into the Edwards family. Trouble comes in threes, and this will hold true for Sydney.
Though in many ways Body Surfing hews closely to the conventions of the genre, the book departs from the typical romance by emphasizing Sydney's desire to make a place in the world. Sydney hungers, not for a singular passion, but for family's comfort and security. Body Surfing plays on the contrast between the close-knit Edwards family, and Sydney's own shattered nuclear family. Desire renders Sydney a close observer. She watches the Edwards family with an intensity that borders on obsession.
Shreve gives Sydney a voice that is slow and deliberate. Sydney seems to be all eyes, as if through sheer force of will she can assimilate the external world through her sense of sight. Consider Sydney's description of the Edwards' beach house in New Hampshire, "Knife blades of grass pierce the wooden slats of the boardwalk. Sweet pea overtakes the thatch. Unwanted fists of thistle push upward from the sand. On the small deck at the end of the boardwalk are two white Adirondack chairs...and a faded umbrella behind them. Two rusted and immensely heavy iron bases for the umbrella sit in a corner, neither of which, Sydney guesses, will ever leave the deck."
Neither of the iron bases will leave the deck, but Sydney, as a stranger, must one day quit the house. Acutely aware of her own temporary status, she exists in a kind of purgatory, alternately jealous and critical, desirous and resentful. Comparing herself (the mistress, the nuclear family's ultimate "outsider") to her lover's wife, Anne Sexton once wrote, "She is the sum of yourself and your dream./Climb her like a monument, step after step./She is solid./As for me, I am a watercolor./I wash off."
Like Sexton, Sydney is fearful of her own impermanence, yet unable to take steps to remedy the situation. Instead, she savors the Edwards' closeness, watching their family rituals and histories from the sidelines. Shreve's writing, at its best, reminds me of Alice Munro or Joyce Carol Oates, two contemporary writers who treat the subjects of family and womanhood with a cool, careful precision.
Shreve was once a journalist, and her penchant for objectivism, for latching onto the choice detail, remains in evidence throughout her writing. Body Surfing is not a Jamesian affair, full of interlinked sentences and choice epigrams. Shreve is fond of choppy sentences -- perhaps a holdover from her correspondent days -- and brief paragraphs. It is a kind of writing that is less psychological than descriptive, more prosaic than poetic. Characters commit actions, but like Sydney, we remain outside, unable to access (or understand) their motivations. Shreve's gift lies in her ability to describe a situation, and hand over a mise-en-scene that is brief and pointed.
In its best moments, Body Surfing is clear and lucid, like the sunlit rooms in the Edwards' beach cottage. Shreve knows how to plot, and the narrative's twists and turns are generally satisfying, though she includes encounters (like Sydney's dinner with Mr. Cavalli, or the lesbian subplot involving Sydney's pupil, Julie, and a surfer-girl from Montreal) that feel unmotivated.
Joyce Carol Oates's assessment of Alice Munro's The Progress of Love can be equally applied to Anita Shreve's Body Surfing. Munro's book, Oates writes, is "a volume of unflinching honesty, uncompromising in its dissection of the ways we deceive ourselves in the name of love; the bleakness of its vision is enriched by the author's exquisite eye and ear for detail. Life is heartbreak, but it is also uncharted moments of kindness and reconciliation."
Unlike Oates or Munro, who are equally comfortable delving into life's less savory side, Shreve retains the romance's penchant for a satisfying ending. Despite the plot's tragic overtones, Body Surfing remains a summer confection. Darkness comes and goes, but we remain buoyant, confident that the next cresting wave will propel us towards happiness.