Although you won’t yet find binge-read in Merriam-Webster, I think it’s just as legitimate a thing as binge-watching, or it has become so for me since discovering the novels of Anita Shreve earlier this year. I honestly can’t even recall what led me to the first title of hers except that I was fresh from a double helping of Aminatta Forna (a real feast!) and was likely looking around on the literary prize lists for a new female author to read.
Once I regained my equilibrium after a breast cancer diagnosis in February, I stopped taking on spare-time editing work and decided to allocate more free time to enjoying whatever life I had left on earth. And to fill the dreary time that passes during chemotherapy—when many of my pleasurable outdoor activities ceased or became severely curtailed—I decided to read (and write) voraciously. Aside from devouring Forna’s Happiness and The Hired Man, I read multiples from Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Strout. More from all of these women are waiting on my reading list.
And then I read The Weight of Water, and the ending took me by such complete surprise that I decided I must read more from Anita Shreve. Since then I’ve finished all of the books in the Fortune’s Rocks series (one of which I found lying around the house, a forgotten score from a long-ago Blind Date with a Book event organized by Tower Free Library) and four more standalone novels. Fortunately, my local library has many of these books available as ebooks, so with just a few keystrokes, I can finish one book and begin another. I’m a little over halfway through Strange Fits of Passion.
Why have Shreve’s books so captivated me? For starters, I find them to well crafted and beautifully written. The writing style appeals to me, and the pacing is excellent. Many of her books have central themes that touch on motherhood, and although I don’t always relate to characters who are overly concerned with children or to stories that revolve around issues of childbirth and childrearing, these characters always develop within the context of a larger story, usually a family drama or the evolution or dissolution of a marriage or relationship. And these stories I find particularly compelling. Several of the novels I’ve read also touch on social issues past and present, a thread I appreciate in any fictional story.
Many of Shreve’s main female protagonists are also strong women—or they become strong owing to the circumstances of their lives. Shreve has a distinct way of getting inside all of her characters’ heads and describing feelings and thoughts in ways I don’t often encounter. The stories are solid and realistic, and they lack plot holes. They are usually intimate stories, too, which makes them easy to slide into, particularly when the opening scenes always compel you to read on.
For me, the other easy entryway into a Shreve novel is setting. Marvelous and vivid descriptions of weather, landscape, temperature, and time of day and their effects on the body and mind allow easy transportation to the lovely but often inhospitable places she writes about in the Northeast and along the Atlantic coast. I love books that can make me feel the way Shreve’s novels do. I slip away to another place and time and become lost in the story.
Many of her books can be described as nothing less than a gut punch. The ending to The Weight of Water left me nearly breathless, and her other stories have had heavy endings as well. Time always passes conspicuously in her books, and events and incidents change lives in suspenseful and serious ways, often irreversibly. I simply cannot put these books down, even when my medical situation suggests that I should be getting more sleep at night.
I have quite a few of Anita Shreve’s books left to read, but if I had to choose favorites so far, I think Light on Snow would be at the top, followed by Fortune’s Rocks and Sea Glass. I’d round out my top 5 with Body Surfing and The Stars Are Fire (I came to love the characters in the latter so much).
A waiting interlibrary loan will interrupt my binge, but I doubt it will be for long. How sad I was to learn that the author died in 2018. An eloquent voice silenced, a gifted observer gone too soon. I’m so glad for the stirring stories that she left behind.