Small Moments Build Intolerable Tension
It is 1995 and Jean Janes, a photojournalist, has come to Smuttynose Island, the site of two brutal murders in 1873, to shoot on assignment. She travels with her husband, Thomas, their daughter, Billie, her brother-in-law, Rich and Rich’s girlfriend, Adelaide. While living in close quarters on her brother-in-law’s boat, the emerging attraction between Thomas and the alluring Adelaide causes Jean to question her husband’s fidelity.
Shreve builds these suspicions line by line using small intimate moments, gestures and signs that pass unspoken between husband and wife—the subtle scent in the sheets, a slight blanch of the cheeks, eyes quickly averted from an exposed thigh. Perhaps the most masterful writing occurs on the line level where Shreve hints at and explores the weakest points of this fifteen-year marriage—Thomas’s (Jean’s husband) alcoholism, Jean’s fears that she has always been his second choice and her persisting silence on these matters.
But this main action is intensified as it interacts with the translated memoir of Maren Honvedt, the only survivor of the 1873 killing. Like Jean, Maren finds herself watching the unwinding of her most prized relationship. Shreve expertly splices and weaves together Jean’s first person account, Maren Hontvedt’s translated memoir (fictionalized by Shreve), and the actual court transcripts from the case The State of Maine v. Louis H. F. Wagner into an account of the slow choices whose sum weight elicits tragic consequences. Shreve characterizes both women through their deft descriptions of other characters, specifically the men they love and the women that attract them.
While the trajectory of the book seems focused on the parallel between two women who are pushed to the limits by claustrophobia, disappointment and loss, perhaps the richest element is the examination of marriage as the “most mysterious covenant in the universe”—a series of random choices or the deep inevitable current between two people? While this is probed for at least three quarters of the book, Shreve’s focus slips away as the action culminates in the haunting ending that proves a somewhat heavy-handed point about human behavior when pushed to the limit.
An engaging and heart-wrenching read buoyed with beautiful language and landscapes and the exuberance of Jean’s daughter Billie. Strong female characters to watch in whose obsessive comparisons and insecurities readers might find glimpses of themselves.