With her new novel Fortune's Rocks, Anita Shreve, author of the bestseller The Pilot's Wife, returns to the time she loves, the 19th century. Though she believes that, at their core, people's lives have not changed in a hundred years, the way we talk about our lives has. She likens modern speech to a corset, finding it "spare, tighter, bereft. It's much harder to write contemporary language. The language of the 19th century is more forgiving, more luxurious. It's the difference between using really expensive silk and voile and velvet as opposed to using cotton."
Written in a richly wrought style evocative of the age, Fortune's Rocks is set a century ago, in an affluent seaside community in upstate New York. It follows the life of self-possessed Olympia Biddeford. Fifteen years old when the book opens, Olympia has reached the moment when, as a character tells her, "a girl becomes a woman. The bud of a woman, perhaps. And she is never so beautiful as in this period of time, however brief."
"It's an extraordinary age," says Shreve, speaking from her home in Massachusetts. "The maturity may not be there, but the sexuality is so ripe.
It's an age of great beauty; it's fascinating. I have a daughter who recently went through that and two stepdaughters who are all stunningly beautiful. It's been interesting to watch how they dealt with it, but more [interesting] to imagine how one would deal with it then."
At this precarious age, Olympia has an affair with a married man, John Haskell. Their forbidden love echoes other great American novels, including Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, which Shreve even refers to in the course of Fortune's Rocks. "As a reader, as a writer, The Scarlet Letter was one of my earliest influences. Ethan Frome, a simple work of American literature, also had a lasting and profound impression on me. I'm interested in passion, betrayal, great love, how they can twist a character as well as forge a character." As her works have shown, Shreve is fascinated by characters thrust into extreme circumstances. "It's a perfect scenario for a moral testing ground of character."
Like The Scarlet Letter's Hester Prynne, Olympia must endure hardship and humiliation, and though she and Haskell are parted, her feelings for him endure. "To be told not to love is useless, she discovers, for the spirit will rebel. Though she thinks it unlikely she will ever see Haskell again, she cannot stop herself from remembering him," writes Shreve, who both is and isn't Olympia.
At that age, Shreve lacked Olympia's emotional certainty, but shared with her protagonist the ability to enjoy solitude, nothing most teenagers admit to. Her voice dreamy, Shreve recalls, "I valued quiet and liked nothing better than to take a walk and be left alone and be able to observe." The author, who says she would hate to write a memoir but loves to write fiction "because it gives me a mask to hide behind," admits that like Olympia, she has "a willingness to take incredible risks for something as strong as love."
In that way, she says, people have not changed from the last century. Cell phones have replaced letters and bathing costumes have given way to bikinis, but in the end, people are always kindled by their passions and constrained by circumstances. These things are as constant as the sea, a force and presence in five of Shreve's six novels. "The sea," she says, "is an inexhaustible metaphor. I think every single one of my books takes place on the coast of New England, with the exception of Eden Close."
Fortune's Rocks not only returns to Shreve's favorite time and landscape, it takes place in the very house where The Pilot's Wife is set. "The house . . . was once a convent, the home of the Order of Saint Jean Baptiste de Bienfaisance . . ." writes Shreve in Fortune's Rocks, and in both books, the house itself is a character, stately yet haunting, evocative of the past.
"This is an idea that's been with me some time," explains the author. "Any old house has a history. Other women lived there, every person who lived there had a story."
Setting and the epic forces of passion and betrayal link The Pilot's Wife and Fortune's Rocks, yet Shreve says, "A lot of readers may be shocked by Fortune's Rocks. Every one of my books is very different. I have no desire to recreate. In the past, it's been a commercial liability." She no longer has to fret about marketability, not since Oprah Winfrey chose The Pilot's Wife to be part of Oprah's Book Club.
"What a fantastic thing that was," says Shreve, still amazed. "Now I have many, many more readers." After being in Oprah's spotlight, the author found herself inundated with requests for interviews and readings. It is fun, she admits, to be on the bestseller list, but otherwise, "my life is exactly the same." She knows, though, that the interest in The Pilot's Wife will draw readers to Fortune's Rocks, where Shreve will usher them into an earlier time, whether they're ready or not.
If she could turn back the clock for herself, Shreve wouldn't mind in the least. "I would have been just so happy to be writing then. I love the language. I don't know how long I can get away with writing 19th-century language, but I just enjoy it so much." She first experimented with 19th-century language in The Weight of Water "and loved it so much, I was determined to find my way back. I'm interested in the marriage of story and language."
Fortune's Rocks is where it all comes together, a compelling tale knit with elegant prose. Though how Shreve tells Olympia's story sets her new novel apart, Olympia's struggles are not all that different from the experiences of women throughout history and on into the present. "It's an intimate look at a woman's life, her grappling with a biblical sense of obsessive love and betrayal and moral decisions and loss, terrible loss. It's about how to continue with life."
Ellen Kanner writes from her home in Miami, Florida.
Author photo by Norman Jean Roy.