"A marriage is always two intersecting stories." This realization comes perhaps too late to the husband of Etna Bliss-a man whose obsession with his young wife begins at the moment of their first meeting, as he helps Etna and her companions escape from a fire in a hotel restaurant, and culminates in a marriage doomed by secrets and betrayal. Written with the intelligence and grace that are the hallmarks of Anita Shreve's bestselling novels, this gripping tale of desire, jealousy, and loss is peopled by unforgettable characters as real as the emotions that bring them together.
In bestsellers such as Fortune's Rocks, Shreve has revealed an impeccably sharp eye and a generous emotional sensitivity in describing the moment when a man and a woman become infatuated with each. She is less successful this time out, perhaps because the epiphany is one-sided. Escaping from a New Hampshire hotel fire at the turn of the 20th century, Prof. Nicholas Van Tassel catches sight of Etna Bliss and is instantly smitten. She does not reciprocate his feeling, for she has her own unrequited lust, for freedom and independence. That they marry guarantees tragedy. Nicholas tells the story in retrospect, writing feverishly on a train trip in 1933 to his sister's funeral in Florida. His pedantic style is full of parenthetical asides, portentous foreshadowing and rhetorical throat. His erotic swoon commands sympathy, until it carries him past any definition of decency. He will do anything to bring down Philip Asher, his academic rival and the brother of Etna's true love, Samuel. He plays on prevailing anti-Semitism (the Ashers are Jewish), and he persuades his daughter, Clara, to claim that Philip touched her improperly, which besmirches not only Philip's reputation but Clara's as well. We see Etna herself only secondhand, except for some correspondence with Philip reproduced toward the end of the tale. Credit the author for making the point that Etna and her sisters had too little autonomy even to tell their own stories, but filtering Etna's experience through Nicholas's sensibility deprives the novel of intimacy and immediacy. (Apr. 15) Forecast: A coordinated laydown will energize sales, and Shreve's latest will likely hit the charts. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Little, Brown and Company
November 30, 2005
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