Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Review: The Weight of Water

Post #100 - Wow.

I just finished reading The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve, as part of a reading assignment given to me by my newest friend, Janie Harrison. I need to focus my attention on a particular genre, and my reading selections vary greatly. So Janie is having me read good fiction in order to determine what interests me most.

Shreve's book is interesting. My first reaction from the initial pages was complete awe and admiration for her prose. Shreve sees a person for the thousand details that compose her. One particular passage that impressed me was on page 77, where she describes a photograph that the narrator had taken of herself and her family. Shreve literally captures a moment in time, and reads the expressions and gestures of each person in the picture. I read that passage many times, as I did also with many others. She is a wonderful writer with a gift for scene painting.

This is really two stories told in parallel, but both share a common theme of jealousy and impending tragedy. The first is told from the perspective of Jean; a photographer who receives a commission to photograph the scene of a hundred year old double murder on a small island on the Isles of Shoals thirty miles off the Atlantic coast between New Hampshire and Maine called Smutty Nose. She shares close quarters on a sail boat, captained by her brother-in-law Rich, with her husband Thomas, five year old daughter Billie, and Rich's girlfriend Adaline. Jean's relationship with her husband is rocky at best; whose attention to Adaline becomes increasingly overt, causing a tension that builds to a breaking point that promises to mirror that of the tragedy Jean is investigating.

The second story is that of murders themselves. Jean finds a journal written by the only survivor of the Smutty Nose murders, a Norwegian immigrant named Maren Hontvedt, who lays out the tale from start to finish of what really happened on that fateful night. Maren describes her childhood in Norway, how she came to marry her husband John, and how they were enticed to move to America, where fish were so plentiful one needed only to reach into the ocean and pull one out. But the reality of course turned out to be quite different. Maren was close to her brother Evan, to the point of possible incest, but that urge was never acted upon. Maren and Evan are found in innocent embraces, which are mistaken as inappropriate, which causes others to separate them, and plants the seed of suspicion in the mind of Maren's sister Karen. Eventually, Karen moves in with Maren on the island of Smutty Nose, then so too does Evan--but Evan brings with him his new wife, the lovely Anethe.

And so we have parallel stories running similar course. Anethe is Adaline, Jean is Maren, and Thomas is Evan. Jean and Maren are jealous, and all live in close, cramped quarters in extreme conditions, all in the harsh climate of Smutty Nose. Both stories are heading for tragedy, one of which we know will end badly, and the other, by implication, must also do.

The theme of water, as it seems to me, is a metaphor for guilt, which must in both cases the narrator feels can be shed by sharing the story with others. Maren eventually confesses her own guilt in her journal, which is particularly egregious because she let an innocent man hang for it. Jean on the other hand, doesn't seem to have much to confess. She is convinced that Thomas and Adaline are having an affair, which any reasonable person on this planet would also assume to be true. A storm ravages the sailboat and Adaline is swept overboard. Jean feels that if she had acted instead of hesitating, she might have saved her. That was her big crime. The tragedy of present day is that Billie, Jean and Thomas' daughter, is drowned instead of Adaline, who is retrieved and resuscitated. The affair turns out to be all in Jean's imagination.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. The style of skipping between past and present was a little distracting for me, but I understand that we are in the mind of Jean, who is obsessed with the past, and so we follow along with her mind as it flits back and forth. I'm not sure it worked, but the book has been adapted to a movie, so somebody else certainly thought so.

In my humble opinion, Shreve fell short at the end. I think she wanted to trick the reader by dropping the bomb that an affair had never occurred, but the evidence was damning to the accused. Nope. I didn't buy it, and I doubt most readers did either.

This a good read from a great author, but the ending of the present day account was a let down. Historically speaking, this was well researched and a clever fictional interpretation of an actual murder case, one that has been the subject of much debate. The ending was weak, but not so much to overshadow a truly brilliant piece of work.


Eve said...

Great review - I might look this book up when it makes it to my humble used bookstore.

Nguyen has been placed on injured reserve, so is out for the season and there is talk that he may retire.

Cundiff's missed field goal wouldn't have been much of a factor if Bledsoe hadn't been intercepted and other mistakes hadn't been made. I hate it when a player is a hero the week before, praised by all of the sports writers, and then the next week when he makes one mistake (albeit a crucial one) they are all of sudden questioning why Parcell's resigned him and saying that the 'boys need to find a quality kicker next year. At least Cundiff isn't the Giants Feely, who must really feel like a loser after Sunday's game (but thankfully he was).

Scott said...

Nguyen will be missed, and I agree that the loss had more to do with that awful throw to Bailey. I'm not down on Cundiff really, but it was a bummer. We can't afford a miss of any kind with the kind of football we're playing. And what about Feeley? He must be holed up in his house for the week. There must be some of Jerry Jones' money in his locker, huh?

Tee said...

I've heard this is a good book - and that is a very interesting review. I'm not usually into murder mysteries.

The way the story line was paralleled (sp?), reminds me of a book called "Bitter Grounds" by Sandra Benitez. It takes place in El Salvador (my husband's home country), which is why I read it. I ended up really enjoying it and now own a copy. (I have to love a book to shell out the money to have my own personal one for my collection!) ... Anyway, in that book, some of the characters are paralleled in radio soap opera that they listen to.

What type of books do you tend to lean towards when you're looking for one you really want to get into and don't want to mess around? For me, I like fiction that takes place in another culture/country.

magnetbabe said...

Congratulations on #100!

I read "Where or When" by Anita Shreve a few years back and liked it. It was a page turner, but I vaguely remember being disappointed in the ending as well. Good review and I too will look for it used when the semester is over!

Eve said...

"There must be some of Jerry Jones' money in his locker, huh?"

I love it - ROTFL

The Zombieslayer said...

Nice review. bloggers don't do enough blog reviews. Never heard of this author though.

Shesawriter said...

I didn't read the book, but I think I saw the movie a while back. Very complex indeed.


mr. schprock said...

You've got me interested in the book, Scott. If the library has it, I just might take it out.

Scott said...

Tee - I seem to read the kind of writing that I would be worst at. I'm envious of JK Rowling for creating such a wonderful set of characters and universe in the Harry Potter series, I love Wilbur Smith (Monsoon), and John Irving's Lonesome Dove. I'm a sucker for a good fantasy, like The Lord of the Rings, etc.

MB - I might pick up another of her titles. I don't know. I'm reading right now what Janey tells me to read.

Eve - Glad you appreciated that one!

Zombie - I'll do more as I read for my assignments. It let's Janey know how I felt about the book.

Tanya - It was sort of complex, but really the impressive part of it was the creation of historical fiction, something that just fascinates me. I would love to give it a try some day.

Mr. Schprock - It's not much of an investment of time, and I would love to know what you think about it.

Tee said...

I just read the 1st chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to my oldest son (7 yrs old) last night.

I've read all the books by myself except the latest one.

Alot of the language is still hard for him to understand. He begged me to buy it at the school book fair though.

I wish he could really, fully, appreciate it... only time will tell. I was his age when my 2nd grade teacher read "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" to the class. I can't remember if I understood every word of it or not, but it deeply affected me and my love for books.

I'm extrememly envious of JK as well. It seems impossible that one person could come up with such a story.

none said...

The review is really good. GOOD! And a fair one at that, too. Larry Brown is at the other end of the spectrum in some ways. I am really looking forward to a review of Father and Son!

If you decide after reading all of the books, [more to come] that you want to write Harry Potter, we can work on that! I love Harry Potter myself, though I am more interested in God and Death, than good and evil.

Scott said...

Tee - I tried reading the first book of the series to my son, and I realized instantly it was way too much for him to understand. Maybe the Narnia book, but for now the book must have pictures on every other page at least. Soon I hope!

Janie - I'm half way through Father and Son. Brown is making me wait for some answers, so they better be good. But after giving up on Shreve to be reinvigorated later, I'll give him some time. Glen is one bent mofo, but oddly I understand him on some level.

As for writing style, I'm following your advice right now, as I'm floundering at sea so to speak. I need to choose a course. If I want to wander into fantasy later, I can always give it a shot then. Right now I want to play up to my strengths; learn to listen to my inner voice.

Anonymous said...

I suppose I should have waited to read this until I had finished the book. But thanks for spoiling the ending for me.

Scott said...

Sorry about that Anon. I should have posted a spoiler alert.