Honora Beecher collects sea glass off the coast of New Hampshire. Fragments of clear, blue and green bottles boat trash, she thinks to herself find their way to the sandy beach where Honora is making a life with her new husband Sexton Beecher. It's the late 1920s, and they are buying into the American dream as deeply as they know how. He is a typewriter salesman. She works full-time to make their scruffy fixer-upper a home, while waiting, hopefully, to get pregnant.
Anita Shreve's latest novel, Sea Glass, starts out in these idyllic terms. Loving husband, hard-working couple, a first home, a satisfying hobby. It's a world infused with gadgets from the past, like a copiograph machine, the precursor of the photocopier, and with the habits of the past like making all your own dresses.
Sea Glass might, on the most superficial inspection, seem to be another one of those historical romances that view the past, especially the '20s and '50s, as the "wonder years," a safer and more innocent time than the one we live in now. But Shreve's novel steers well clear of that shoal. Instead, this intriguing novelist seems bent on showing us that the 1920s were just as scary and unpredictable as our own times. The headlines Honora reads every morning suggest a world just as close to spinning out of control as the one most readers are familiar with today. Dozens die over the Fourth of July weekend, many in fireworks accidents. Others drown or crash their cars. With no warning, a ship explodes in the harbor, killing half a town. Soon the fragile harmony of the Beechers' perfect lives, seemingly unflawed by the kind of moral turbulence we experience in the 21st century, is blown apart by the stock market crash and a subsequent union strike.
The singular accomplishment of Shreve's book is that she is able to capture a time gone by in authentic and believable detail without making her characters cute, quaint or unrealistically virtuous the hubris of the average historical romance writer. In the world of Sea Glass, people live together without getting married, cheat on their employers and think about having extramarital affairs, just as characters in a contemporary novel would.
Some readers may find the character of Sexton Beecher the most believable. Just as Shreve refuses to romanticize the past, she also refuses to put the 1920s American family man on a pedestal. Beecher is driven by a vast, unfocused hunger which, if viewed from the right angle, might appear to be the dark side of that American dream we talk so much about. Sexton is good with people, a look-you-straight-in-the-eye kind of guy, and he has no problem doling out the little lies that make up business relationships. He longs for his own home, and he'll do some creative financing to get it. He loves his wife, but when they're apart and he's lonely, he's not opposed to a little recreation with another woman. And yet, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that many readers will not despise Sexton; they will understand his hunger. Like that other famous traveling salesman, Willie Loman, Sexton makes the reader ache for his failure at the same time that he (the reader) clearly perceives the character's many errors of judgment.
Just as sea glass offers hints of a lost era, so Shreve's new novel is a perfect fragment of our past a fictional story, but one so true to human psychology and the mores of the times, the reader may feel it contains more truth than a diary or a newspaper archive.