Body Surfing by Anita Shreve

Written in 2007 (publisher Little, Brown), Body Surfing concerns several of Shreve’s motifs – the story takes place on the New Hampshire coast; the protagonists are civilised, rich (or of sufficient means) attractive and improbably talented; some of the characters are academics in the Boston area; there are lots of sea glass and occasional references to other Shreve novels (for example, the Shoal islands which were at the centre of The Weight of Water, and the brief history of the beach house provided here indicates that it has been the scene of other Shreve novels such as The Pilot’s Wife); and, above all, there is genteel romance, sad but reversible tragedy, redemption and a dose of wish-fulfilment. It’s an easy, appetising whole, but one feels that life slips down easily for Sydney, Julie and even the two sons locked in Oedipal conflict, whose problems are entirely of the self-created variety.

The main plot concerns 29-year-old Sydney, who has been once widowed and once divorced. She is an academic studying the psychology of “at risk” teenagers, but can’t focus on her studies after the tragic end of her second marriage. She has taken a job as tutor to Julie for the summer – Julie is the 18-year-old daughter of the well-to-do Mr and Mrs Edwards, a retired architect and his hostess wife, who are living in their beach house for the summer. The first half of the book tells of Sydney’s life, mainly with the Edwards family but also partly her own past. Sydney is very fond of Mr Edwards, but does not like Mrs Edwards, who is admittedly a bit of a silly woman but very much the product of her time, and I did not like Sydney’s rather superior, patronising, passive-aggressive attitude to the older woman. Julie is a bit “simple” and unlikely, in Sydney’s view, to fulfil her mother’s ambition of doing well enough at maths (which Sydney is engaged to teach her) to be accepted at a prestigious local college. Eventually, Sydney discovers that Julie is amazingly talented at art, a talent that has gone unnoticed by her family. Despite her brief from Mrs Edwards, Sydney switches to teaching the girl more about art, perhaps partly to spite Julie’s mother, or to show she knows the girl best. (When consulting the parents about any matter to do with Julie, Sydney tends to talk to Mr Edwards, rather than Mrs, I think because Sydney thinks she’ll get a more “acceptable” answer, even though it is Mrs Edwards who has engaged Sydney.)

Sydney meets Jeff and Ben, the two older sons of the Edwardses who come to visit during the long vacation, liking one of them but not the other. Romance blossoms. Julie goes missing one night and is found dangerously drunk. Life continues. Then Julie goes missing for real and as a result, her parents have to face up to some realities that they had previously been able to avoid. Sydney’s own life seems to be heading, finally, for happiness but we can be pretty sure that her hopes will come crashing down to earth — but in sufficient time for her to find some comfort before the book ends.

Although I enjoyed reading this book and was very absorbed in it, I do not feel that it is very realistic. When tragedies happen, the people emerge (in Sydney’s case in a highly unlikely, serendipitous interlude) into a better, happier place. Nobody seriously worries about having a roof over their heads or making ends meet. Julie does not just turn out to have a talent for art, she’s exceptionally good at it from her first attempt. When disappointed in love, Sydney has no difficulty in attracting eligible new admirers, whether or not she reciprocates. So despite some of the genuine emotions conveyed in this book (the death of one of the characters, for example) and a lovely, observational sense of place, the romanticised veneer detracts from believability – though I am not sure whether the author set out to write realism or a fable.

I picked up this novel a few years ago as a proof copy on a “to go out” shelf at my office. It was reviewed by Kim at Reading Matters, and now, finally, I’ve read the book.

Read other reviews of Body Surfing at: Mostly Fiction, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe (which picks up on the soap opera aspects).