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This is a review of the 2005 book A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve. I have read other books from this author and have mixed views, enjoying some and hating others! I have had this one on the book shelf for ages and have picked it up and put it down several times before actually getting in to it. For me this book sits in the middle ground, in parts I found it quite boring and repetitive but other parts were interesting and enjoyable.
A bit about
In A Wedding in December, we meet a group of people who were all together at college 27 years ago. The group's dynamics are interesting and the crowd are back together after this long time because two of their group are getting married. A reunion of sorts means they all travel a long way to stay at Nora's Inn to catch up and witness their friend's union.
The book is narrated from most of the characters view points, chapter by chapter, sometimes going back over the same ground to show emotions and reactions to different events. Harrison Branch is a family man, on his own at the wedding and reliving his crush on the now widowed Nora when they were at school. One member of the group, Steven is missing and everyone mourns his untimely death at school one drunken night on the beach. Rob, known as a star on the Baseball pitch is now a famous concert pianist and also brings his partner to let everyone know he is gay. Jerry, the mouthy one is rich and successful, arrives on a limo and asks everyone controversial questions to get a lively debate going. Agnes, the spinster school teacher returned to their school (Kidd Academy) to work and has stayed and lived in ever since. Finally, Bridget and Bill are the ones getting married after all this time and they have both left previous marriages to be with each other. It could all end tragically though as Bridget is fighting aggressive cancer. Of the group there are two outsiders, Josh and Julie who are partners of the main group and they find themselves witnessing some uncomfortable moments as the group reminisce over their past.
The part I enjoyed most in this book was actually a book within a book. Agnes is writing her first short story based on a true event, the Halifax Explosion in Nova Scotia (Canada) when two ships collided in port, one carrying ammunition, caused an explosion which devastated the entire community, who were watching the blaze in the harbour when the explosion occurred, sending buildings and glass flying. Many were killed, hurt and blinded by the explosion. Agnes uses this event to create a story about a young doctor, Innes on apprentice in the area as an eye doctor. She echoes her own life in the book, using love as the main theme. I found these sections most enjoyable and was glad that she managed to bring the book to a conclusion within the pages.
I felt there were just the right amount of characters in the book before it became too confusing. Everyone seemed to have burdens in their life and these were confessed throughout the book. A huge amount of guilt over past love affairs, the death of their friend Stephen and other skeletons in the closet were unloaded amongst the group.
I did find it strange that they had come together for this event when some of the people had not kept in touch at all. It seemed weird that the marriage of Bill and Bridget would call for this reunion.
I'm not sure whether I would recommend this book to all, simply because I read on to finish it and was not enjoying it at times.
This is not a typical school reunion book, and some of the characters were more interesting than others. The imagery of Nora's inn is well described and sounds utterly charming, a place I'd love to stay. This is a middle of the road book for me and as such I will give it three dooyoo stars.
Anita Shreve is a writer I first discovered with her book The Pilots Wife a scarily prescient novel about a plane crash in which there is a terrorist sub-plot. Reading her 2005 novel A Wedding in December, the first she wrote after the attacks of September 11th, it was strange to see her return to those events as a subtle circumstantial sub-topic of a much broader tale of private and public loss and grief.
Shreve isnt one of the writers for whom Id rush out to the bookshop with my credit card burning a hole in my pocket out of sheer excitement to have a new book as soon as possible (I know its sad but there are some writers that DO get me that fired up). Slowly but surely though she weasels her way into my book shelves, gets read and generally gets passed on to friends that Im sure will like and appreciate her. Truth be told, Ive probably never paid full whack for an Anita Shreve book you dont need to; they are in great supply in the second hand book shops and charity shops of Britain. And theres no great surprise in that she writes good solid novels, filled with yearning and emotion that so far with the notable exception of the dirge-like All He Ever Wanted have never failed to please me.
In December in a small hotel in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, a group of old school friends meet to celebrate an unusual and hastily arranged wedding. Bridget and Bill were school sweethearts who lost each other, married and had children with the wrong people, and then found one another again at a school reunion. Bridget is seriously ill with cancer and nobody really seems to think shell survive very long. Bill wants to put right the decades he wasted not being with her by getting married.
The hotel belongs to Nora, the widow of a famous American poet who is trying to get her life back on track after his death, and trying to become a whole person again after years of abuse living in his shadow. Harrison is a publisher, married to a Canadian lawyer and father to two boys but still carrying a torch for Nora. Harrison is still covering up a secret related to a tragedy that united the group in their last few weeks at school. Will he tell or not?
Another person with a secret is Agnes, the frumpy, dumpy spinster school teacher who now works at Kidd, the school that all the protagonists attended. The wedding is particularly hard on Agnes who would like nothing more than to marry her long term secret lover (an ex-teacher from Kidd whom all the group liked) but hes been stringing her along for many years and still wont leave his wife. Agnes is torn should she tell her friends and risk their disapproval but show them shes more than they think she is?
Agnes is also writing a novel the historical tale of Innes, a young doctor caught up in a tragedy in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1917 when an ammunitions boat exploded in the harbour causing thousands of deaths and even more injuries. His fictitious story is intertwined periodically with the current-day story.
Two of the seven school friends are there with their partners. Brash and flashy Jerry turns up in a stretch limo with his beautiful fur-clad wife Jill but maybe things arent as perfect as hed like them to imagine. Jerrys having a bit of a personal crisis he witnessed the attacks on the World Trade Centre, talks about hearing the thud of the falling bodies and thinks that nobody who wasnt there can really understand how it was.
Perhaps the most contented of the group is Rob, a concert pianist who has brought along his partner Josh, another talented musician and singer. None of the others knew Rob was gay or even that he was playing piano as a boy.
The ghost at the table throughout the weekend is Stephen the talented baseball player who had been about to go to a top college on a sports scholarship when they last saw him. Stephen was Noras boyfriend and Harrisons room-mate. He played baseball with all the boys and was the life and soul of the party but also a heavy drinker with an early alcohol problem. Stephen drowned in the sea at a beach party and some of the others in the group know only parts of the circumstances surrounding the death.
In addition to the old school friends, we meet Bridgets son and his friend and a few of the hotel staff one of whom turns out to have more significance than we would have expected.
Themes of Loss
The book is full of personal and public tragedies without ever getting too morose. The 9/11 attacks are juxtaposed against the Halifax explosion with the reader left to draw their own parallels. Nora has lost her husband but found herself; Agnes has lost her youth and chance to ever have children by choosing the wrong man; Harrison is mourning the loss of what might have been with Nora had Stephen not died but is confused about whether what he could gain today would be worth the loss of his current life with wife and children; Bill is all too aware of the possibility that his marriage will be a very short one and also conscious that only by losing his daughter was he able to be with Bridget; and Bridget is scared of death and losing Bill all over again.
What did I think?
I couldnt help but be reminded of films like The Big Chill and Peters Friends the groups of old school friends who find that life has moved on and changed immeasurably and nobody is quite who they once where or who they have become. I did find I cared about some of the characters, I wanted read their stories and understand how they inter-twined but could see that Shreve was unlikely to go for any conventional or sappy happy endings. A lot is left hanging at the end but thats probably more realistic.
I found the sub-story of the doctor caught up in the Halifax Explosion to be a bit extraneous to the main story whilst it was interesting and reminded me of an historical event that Id forgotten I knew about, it could have been cut in its entirety without the novel really being any the weaker for its absence.
Ive been to a three college reunions in the years since I left University and I can relate to a lot of the themes of yearning, wondering what if and seeing people sizing up their success against their peers. Shreves group are all a few years older than me and the people I studied with but I could recognise most of the characters and the emotions covered. Im guessing that if you are 20 this book will appeal a lot less than if you are 35-plus and it may be more poignant if you had and lost a group of friends at some point in your life. But on the whole, its a solid good read that wouldnt be out of place on the sun-beds and in the flight bags of people looking for a good summer read thats a bit deeper than chick lit.
'Shreve writes cool, lucid, popular fiction and the hugely readable A Wedding in December is no exception'