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It's a while since I've read a novel by Anita Shreve, but I always finish reading one with a sense of having lived through strong emotional turmoil. If ever an author has a forte, then Shreve's is the ability to write with deceptive simplicity about something that's much deeper than the surface story. So it is with this book, where the title of body surfacing has a few different meaning apart from the obvious one of surfing the waves. Read as a story it's part love story, part family secrets and deception lived against the backdrop of the sea, which is Shreve's great love affair. I've read several of her books that have the thunderous power of the sea taking place alongside a boy meets girl story.
In this story the tale is told by Sydney Feldman, a woman in her late twenties who has already suffered more than the usual amount of grief in her short life. Married young to an aviator who she divorces when the fear of him dying gets too much, her second husband, a safe doctor suddenly dies eight months into their marriage leaving Sydney emotionally spent. Having cut her academic future short, she is taking odd jobs while waiting to take up her university place again and starts working as a teacher to Julie, daughter of a rich couple, The Edwards who own a rather large 'cottage' on the seashore at a new Hampshire location in America. Julie is eighteen and her parents are hoping she'll graduate college but Sydney knows the girl isn't anywhere near bright enough, but she has other talents.
Sydney enjoys the sport of body surfing, taking on the waves with just a small board between her and the power of the sea. It's on one of these expeditions when she first becomes acquainted with the Edward's two sons, Ben and Jeff. Both are older than her and both are unmarried, though Jeff has a girlfriend, Victoria. Before long Sydney realizes that the family are playing a strange kind of game with her, almost as if they are wooing her in an attempt to gain some kind of control over her.
As she becomes increasingly attached to both Julie and Jeff, she faces some hard truths about herself. Is she able to start over again or has her disastrous love life frightened her off emotional entanglements for life?
Why are one brother threatening and the other bent on seducing her? Then there are the secrets held by Julie herself and the challenge that teaching the girl presents to Sydney. One thing I can say is that nothing is quite what it seems.
Once again this is a character-driven book with the emphasis mostly on Sydney, although there is plenty going on with the other family members. Anita Shreve is an expert at sketching in characters, then adding flesh only to take another turn and leave the reader wondering whether they have read things right. Certainly there is a heroine and maybe a hero, but both are flawed and ultimately they must all take a good long look at themselves, their motives and methods.
Sydney is engaging and you can relate to her straight away. Julie is not as transparent as at first sight and a good part of the story revolves around her. This helps to make the book more suitable to any age group, though fans of Shreve's work are normally 30+ I've seen my daughter read one of her books several years ago as a newly married young woman and I'm in my late 50's.
I felt myself edging towards a preference for the older brother Ben, though Jeff is endearing I somehow expected him to be a bit of a rogue, whether I was right is up to the individual reader. You might see something different to me. Certainly the adult Edwards are unique in their Southern style of family values. I disliked the mother, referred to all through the book as Mrs. Edwards, intensely, resenting her opinion of Sydney who I liked. Mr Edwards is much nicer, though afraid of his wife. So there you have it, a set of characters that make this book such a good read.
I like Shreve's work as I do find it quite different from other writers in this genre, which is romance with some drama. She never fails to add a twist that you rarely see coming and her plots are convoluted enough to keep the pages turning. This isn't one of her best book by far, as I did anticipate some of the ending and I felt annoyed at times with the slow pace of the story. Whether this was because I've been reading some deeper books or just because I didn't quite get the message could be seen entirely different by another reader, or even at a second reading.
There is some play on meaning with the 'body surfing', which could give some of the plot away. I saw it as both physical (the characters are all fond of the water) but also as a woman who is just 'surfing' through life, unable to emote properly. She suffers pain, but distances herself. I could be reading things into it, but it seems likely. With the sport of body surfing in Wales there is no hesitation. A wave can knock you off your feet and get you into difficulties and even death. You must commit yourself completely to the action of the water to surmount it. Whether or not Shreve's characters can do this remains to be seen.
The location is worth a mention, as the book never really makes it clear. It's very picturesque and the background love of the sea is in every page the author mentions the sea in. She does tend to use this description to great effect and if this is your first read by the author you'll love the way she weaves this in and out of the plot. I adore the sea in any weather but I also respect it. I find it affects my moods strongly and I did read some parts of this with tears in my eyes. There is one part in particular that really stunned me by its sheer loveliness. I do hope you read and appreciate it as well.
So I am recommending this with four stars since it will have limited appeal to some readers. It's very much a women's' book but I wouldn't say men couldn't enjoy it every bit as much.
My copy is a library copy. My shelves are in need of some pruning. You can buy this online or in good book shops. I wouldn't expect to find it second hand because if you have a book by this writer you tend to keep it.
Thanks for reading.
©Lisa Fuller. 2011.
Recently I read this book by Anita Shreve. It is the first of her books that I had ever taken a look at, and the only reason it really happened to come my way is because when we were staying at the caravan I didn't have anything to read and my mum had just finished this so gave it to me and recommended it. We were near a beach at the time and the house they live in, in this book is on a beach so the two settings were quite similar which I thought made the book a perfect holiday read.
My mum had really enjoyed this and has read a few other of her books. As of yet I haven't got round to reading any more of her novels but I hope to in the future. Reading this has convinced me to give them a go.
I wouldn't call this book chick lit but I do think it is more suited to women than men. It is quite emotionally intensive, one critic has said about this book - "Nobody does emotional intensity quite like Anita Shreve, as this beautifully written story of destructive relationships proves".
Another critic has said, "A painstaking cartographer of the human heart" and The Times also commented, "Emotional upheavels, shifts of loyalty and painful revelations about the past ... the Shreve hallmarks are all over this warm, satisfying novel".
First I want to talk about the title. When I first read what the book was called I was slightly put off. By 'body surfing' I thought it was going to be all about middle aged bedroom diaries. As a teenager this isn't something I particularly wanted to read about, especially as my mum had already read it. But I feel I should clarify the title actually refers to the literal meaning of surfing in the sea without a surfboard, as the characters in this book sometimes go out at night and stand against the sharp waves as they like the excitement of it. But as this book is all about relationships I think the title does hold an implicit meaning. There aren't any graphic scenes in the book though.
The main character in the book is a very likeable 29 year old woman called Sydney. Everything is told from her point of view. As a reader I couldn't help but feel sorry for Sydney. Even though she is still so young she has already been once divorced and once widowed. Her life has literally fallen apart and in an attempt to find her footing again she answers an advertisement to become tutor to a teenage girl.
The teenage girl is called Julie. She lives in a gorgeous open front New Hampshire cottage (although it sounds a lot bigger than a cottage to me, there are loads of bedrooms with ensuites and guests are always visiting and staying in these bedrooms, the family hosts a lot of parties) with her parents and occasionally her two older brothers come to stay. The older brothers are about Sydney's age.
When they come house Sydney finds herself caught up in old tensions and bitter divisions. I won't go into much detail or I might spoil the story but Anita Shreve tells everything so well and in such amazing detail that everything seems so real and like you are there with Sydney. I felt all the emotions that Sydney feels; shock, pain, anger, depression. Happiness for a short while before she discovers a harsh revelation that tears her apart and destroys her life again.
I found myself liking the characters Sydney was close to and feeling anger and dislike to those who were cruel to her. The book really is emotionally intensive, but thoroughly enjoyable from the start.
I definitely recommend this book. I thought it was a fantastic read and really enjoyed it and am glad I read it. :)B