While I wouldn't consider Anita Shreve one of my go-to authors, I have enjoyed the novels I've read by her, which are Testimony and The Pilot's Wife. As a result, after I read a positive review for this by another CBR V participant, I certainly made a note of it, and picked it up while at the bookstore. This novel was actually shortlisted for the former Orange Prize in 1998, and has since been made into a movie by Kathryn Bigelow. Having now completed it, I would have to say I prefer the other two of her novels that I have read, though this wasn't a bad novel. It just wasn't quite what I wanted at the time I read it.
Jean, the narrator, is a photographer who has been hired to take pictures of Smutty-Nose, one of several islands off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine. In the mid to late 19th century, the island was the site of two women's double murder with one survivor, and the magazine wants to do a piece on the murder and compare it to a more recent sensational case. While visiting Portsmouth, a nearby town on the mainland, Jean stumbles upon some documents written by the lone survivor, Maren Hontvedt. The narrative shifts back and forth between these documents or journal, and Jean's narrative. Within Jean's story, she tells the story of her marriage and her life, but also occasionally elaborates on the murder trial and what history has recorded as occuring on that island. I actually really liked this structure, and thought it was very well done, especially the way the author weaved the facts of the case in with Jean's actions and thoughts of the moment. It was also easy to draw parallels between the situation on the island and the boat. Jean has asked her brother-in-law, Rich, to use his boat to take her out to the site, leading to a trip with four adults and one young child confined to a relatively small space for about a week while Jean works on her assignment. Maren and her husband John lived in a small house on Smutty-Nose with his brother Matthew, her brother Evan and his wife Anethe, with her sister Karen as a frequent visitor. Six adults in such a small proximity obviously could lead to some tensions, especially since Maren portrays Karen as a bitter, angry woman who judges her constantly. While the three men were away for work, a former boarder comes to their abode to steal, and ends up killing two of the women in the process, with only Maren escaping. He is soon found, tried and found guilty of the crime.
While the four modern day adults are on the boat together, Jean begins to doubt her marriage, and her husband Thomas. Rich's current girlfriend Adaline is beautiful, and very interested in poetry, giving her a connection to Thomas, an alcoholic poet. Jean's insecurities nag at her, knowing that she is no longer as young as she once was, and watching the easy interaction between Thomas and Adaline. The dual narratives and the exploration of people in confined places should have worked incredibly well but it just didn't do it for me. I think part of it was the ending; if the ending had been slightly different, I think I would have preferred it rather than the ending that occurs. Parts of the ending I was expecting from the first page of the narrative, and these certainly came true, but in other cases my expectations were not met. And while I believe that was actually kind of the point of the novel (expectations and believes vs reality), it actually left me unsatified - on the one hand, I wanted to be surprised but not in that way. Still, I probably would pick up another Shreve novel, and part of me is even curious about The Last Time We Met, which is a sequel, focusing on Thomas a few years down the road.