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Anita Shreve explores the turn of the last century in new novel

Fortune's Rocks is the fictional name of a New Hampshire beach enclave, site of the summer vacation home of the Biddefords of Boston at the turn of the last century. It is also the title of novelist Anita Shreve's latest work, following the runaway success of her last book, The Pilot's Wife, chosen as an Oprah's Book Club selection in 1999.

On first glance, Fortune's Rocks might appear to be standard, historical romantic dreck. It is the story of Olympia, a well-bred 15-year-old girl who enters into an affair with Dr. Haskell, a 45-year-old married man, forever relinquishing her place in society. The language and the plot are rich with heavy breathing and scandal. But anyone who concludes that Fortune's Rocks belongs on the shelf with Danielle Steel doesn't know Shreve -- a serious, ambitious novelist whose work frequently addresses the treachery of runaway hearts and the consequences of desire, set against the constraints of society.

In fact, Fortune's Rocks addresses many of the same themes that have arisen in Shreve's previous six, decidedly literary, novels: the struggle of a woman to become self-reliant; infidelity and betrayal; the search for autonomy and identity within and outside of marriage.

Shreve was a journalist before she turned full-time to fiction, penning two cover stories for the New York Times magazine which eventually became full-length books -- Remaking Motherhood, a discussion of working mothers as positive role models for their children (1985), and Women Together, Women Alone (1987), a follow-up look at five women who had met in a consciousness-raising group during the early days of the women's movement. Both books are currently out of print, but their publication helped finance Shreve's decision to write fiction full-time in the late '80s.

"Everybody had told me, basically, not to do this," said Shreve in a recent telephone interview. "If one could make a living writing non-fiction, why jeopardize that by delving into the unknown?" Shreve says she felt she was a better writer when doing fiction, having written some successful short stories years before, and always wanted to go back to the fiction world.

Success came surely and swiftly. The New England author, who now teaches at Amherst College, has published seven novels in a decade, and none of them has escaped critical attention. The Weight of Water, another book by Shreve set on the foggy New Hampshire coast, will soon be adapted to film and will star Sean Penn.

Fortune's Rocks spends its first half establishing the character of Olympia -- her progressive education at the hands of her father, a respected intellectual; her uncanny emotional maturity; her far-reaching interest in social issues; and her inevitable fall from grace as a result of her relationship with Haskell.

"I'm fascinated with the question 'How do you ever know that you really know a person?' said Shreve, when asked to discuss her now familiar treatment of the betrayed spouse. "I'm interested in the consequences of betrayal, the aftermath for both persons.

"I think there's a fascination with a lover's past; wanting to know everything one possibly can. I tried to talk [in Fortune's Rocks] about how a betrayal is double-edged, the lover has had all these intimacies with another that you can never know about. It becomes an obsession."

In Fortune's Rocks, the consequence of Olympia and Haskell's affair is, ultimately, a child, taken away to an orphanage at birth against the young mother's wishes.

The second half of the book describes Olympia's journey into adulthood and self-sufficiency, and her eventual attempt to reunite with the child who has been adopted by an immigrant couple, mill workers in a town inland from Fortune's Rocks. To find her place in a society that has rejected her, Olympia takes up residence in her family's abandoned cottage and finds solace in the physical labor of restoring the place.

"She takes solace in the work, in simple tasks," said Shreve. "Olympia has had an upheaval from society, and those everyday quotidian tasks allow her to reinvent herself, to know herself. She's sweeping away the identity of that house, making it her own house."

In the struggle to learn to take care of herself, Olympia is, in a sense, says Shreve, educated to it. Her father has taught her to think for herself and to explore subjects often denied to young ladies of that time. And following her confinement and childbirth, her father sends her to a school in western Massachusetts where young ladies are trained to become missionaries, another step in her journey toward self-reliance.

"She also has been ostracized; she has been set apart from society, and that forces her to become self-reliant," said Shreve.

Written entirely in the present tense, Fortune's Rocks relies on rich, 19th century language to set the scene, but maintains an urgency that propels the reader from start to finish.

"I wanted to use the 19th century language, since I had enjoyed it so much in The Weight of Water," said Shreve. "It's very forgiving; it has a great deal of license; it's very rich. I originally wrote [Fortune's Rocks] in the past tense, but it felt too formal. So I switched to present tense, and I found it gave an immediacy to the prose and got rid of the sentiment."

Indeed, if it is possible to avoid sentimentality with this particular subject matter, Shreve has succeeded masterfully. Fortune's Rocks surprises and elucidates at every turn, looking hard at the core of Olympia's circumstance with an unflinching eye.

Life at the turn of the 20th century, both in the patrician surroundings of Fortune's Rocks and Boston and in the mill town of Ely, are meticulously re-created, as are the inner workings of a precocious child catapulted into womanhood. Shreve has carefully researched the period and the place, but the actual details are suffused and absorbed by the compelling character of Olympia.

"I've done a fair amount of research," said Shreve. "Basically I read on a need-to-know basis. The characters come first, then I find out what I need to know."

  • Anita Shreve explores the turn of the last century in new novel, "Fortune's Rocks."

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