Everywhere hailed for its emotional intensity and unflagging narrative momentum, this magnificent novel transports us to the turn of the twentieth century, to the world of a prominent Boston family summering on the New Hampshire coast, and to the social orbit of a spirited young woman who falls into a passionate, illicit affair with an older man, with cataclysmic results.
The time is the turn of the last century, the setting a rocky New Hampshire coastline resort area nicknamed "Fortune's Rocks." Olympia Biddeford, age 15, is walking the beach, feeling the first stirrings of her womanhood. The strong-willed daughter of an upstanding Boston couple, she soon "learns of desire" as she begins a passionate affair with a married writer, John Haskell, three times her age. From the moment they meet (he is a visiting friend of her father's), they experience a sexual sparkAOlympia feels "liquid" in his presence. Soon, they fall into sinful trysting. Shreve (The Pilot's Wife) serves up these opening events with breathless immediacy. Once the plot gets a chance to developAOlympia gets pregnant, gives up child, fights to get child backAit settles down considerably, turning into a modernized The Scarlet Letter, a tale of a woman attaining feminist independence by living outside her period's societal mores. Reading, Brown (of TV's The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd) clearly has the most fun at the beginning, where the story's real heat and flushed excitement pours out. Listeners, too, may grow colder as the plot loses its torrid, forbidden edge. Based on the 1999 Little, Brown hardcover. (Dec.)
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Little, Brown and Company
October 31, 2002
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Excerpt from Fortune's Rocks by Anita Shreve
In the time it takes for her to walk from the bathhouse at the seawall of Fortune's Rocks, where she has left her boots and has discreetly pulled off her stockings, to the waterline along which the sea continually licks the pink and silver sand, she learns about desire. Desire that slows the breath, that causes a preoccupied pause in the midst of uttering a sentence, that focuses the gaze absolutely on the progress of naked feet walking toward the water. This first brief awareness of desire-and of being the object of desire, a state of which she has had no previous hint-comes to her as a kind of slow seizure, as of air compressing itself all around her, and causes what seems to be the first faint shudder of her adult life.
She touches the linen brim of her hat, as she would not have done a summer earlier, nor even a day earlier. Perhaps she fingers the hat's long tulle sash as well. Around her and behind her, there are men in bathing costumes or in white shirts and waistcoats; and if she lifts her eyes, she can see their faces: pale, wintry visages that seem to breathe in the ocean air as if it were smelling salts, relieving the pinched torpor of long months shut indoors. The men are older or younger, some quite tall, a few boys, and though they speak to each other, they watch her.
Her gait along the shallow shell of a beach alters. Her feet, as she makes slow progress, create slight and scandalous indentations in the sand. Her dress, which is a peach silk, turns, when she steps into the water, a translucent sepia. The air is hot, but the water on her skin is frigid; and that contrast makes her shiver.
She takes off her hat and kicks up small splashes amongst the waves. She inhales long breaths of the sea air, which clear her head. Possibly the men observing her speculate then about the manner in which delight seems suddenly to overtake her and to fill her with the joy of anticipation. And are as surprised as she is by her acceptance of her fate. For in the space of time it has taken to walk from the seawall to the sea, perhaps a distance of a hundred yards, she has passed from being a girl, with a child's pent-up and nearly frenzied need to sweep away the rooms and cobwebs of her winter, to being a woman.
It is the twentieth day of June in the last year of the century, and she is fifteen years old.
Olympia's father, in his white suit, his hair a fading ginger and blowing upwards from his brow, is calling to her from the rocks at the northern end of the beach. The rocks upon which it has been the fate of many sailors to founder, thus lending the beach and the land adjacent to this beach the name of Fortune. He cups his mouth with his hands, but she is deaf from the surf. A white shape amidst the gray, her father is a gentle and loving man, unblemished in his actions toward her, although he believes himself in possession of both her body and her soul, as if they were his and not hers to squander or bestow.
Earlier this day, Olympia and her father and her mother journeyed north from Boston by train to a cottage that, when they entered, was white with sheets and oddly without dust. Olympia wished when she saw the sheets that her mother would not ask Josiah, who is her father's manservant, to take them off the furniture, because they made fantastical abstract shapes against the six pairs of floor-to-ceiling windows of the long front room. Beyond the glass and the thin glaze of salt spray lay the Atlantic with its cap of brilliant haze. In the distance, there were small islands that seemed to hover above the horizon line.