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This is a review of the 2002 book 'Sea Glass' by Anita Shreve. Set in 1929, New Hampshire, America you follow the story of Honora the bank clerk and how she meets her husband and moves into a house by the sea with him, away from family and friends.
The book's title 'sea glass' paints a pretty picture. Honora has daily walks on the beach looking for the washed up pieces of the glass, worn smooth by the sea and pure in its colour.
**A bit about the plot***
Throughout the book we are introduced to other characters who all eventually meet and form a piece of the jigsaw. Vivian is an upper class socialite who meets Honora on the beach. They form a true and lasting friendship that money can't buy.
Other characters are the local mill workers whom Honora's husband, a one time typewriter salesman called Sexton, ends up working with.
**Good style of writing***
Each chapter is headed with the character's name who is narrating that section which makes it easy to read and keeps the story moving on.
**It was ok but...**
I thought this book was beautifully written, delicate and honest in places but it just didn't do it for me. I found it a bit boring and was racing through the pages just to get it finished unfortunately.
***My best bit***
My favourite bit was the character Alphonse, a 12 year old boy who works at the mill but spends most of his time wondering where his next meal is coming from. His character is loyal and loveable and you do find yourself hoping for a better life for him, particularly when he borrows his sister's jumper when it's cold and it has a frill on the front that he has to try and hide! His relationship with Honora, learning to swim and her understanding of his poverty striken life makes your heart melt for him.
**More by this author***
I have enjoyed reading other novels by Anita Shreve but wouldn't rate this one as anything worth seeking out. It was a pleasant enough read but just not enough happening until the very end when it felt rushed.
***Final verdict - my opinion**
I can see that some people would find this novel a beautiful tale and would appreciate it for the style and story. But for me it just wasn't enough and I wanted a bit more action and things to happen.
I did enjoy reading about the year 1929 and things like prohibition and going to the 'speak' there was lots of make do and mend attitude.
To me, there were lots of potentially interesting angles that were touched on, such as the history of the beach house, Honora's relationship with her mother and what Sexton perhaps got up to as a salesman on the road but a lot of the story stays at home and bakes with Honora instead of going into more detail.
Since I am constantly reading and reviewing books I thought Id give you some insight into my reading habits. Im an avid reader, often getting through four books a week. Over the years I have built up my collection in various ways, some books Ive picked up in bargain stores, others I just have to buy as soon as they are released in hardback. My bookshelves groan under the weight of about 200 books in my living room, some in my own bedroom, others in my spare room and boxes full in my attic. Parting with a book is near impossible for me to do, so nowadays I choose books from my local library only buying ones that I know I will read again. I discover new authors all the time and so it came about that I recently chanced upon a book by Anita Shreve.
I didnt know anything about the author, but it seems that she is well known in literacy circles and her books are consistently bestsellers. Normally I would add a short biography at this point but the author interviews on the Internet were quite brief, mostly about her books, not the author herself. It appears that she writes mostly about the area of New Hampshire where she lives and her books tend to be based around certain locations. Like me, she has a strong affinity with the sea and her characters are drawn from mainly historical backgrounds. I take chances with books and picked this one up because the blurb on the back cover appealed to me. In this way I often discover a new perspective, a new genre, a new experience.
The year is 1929 and the heroine of the book, Honora, is venturing into unknown territories with her new husband Sexton Beecher, after a brief courtship of only three months duration. By chance, Sexton has the opportunity to occupy a large run-down house at the edge of the sea rent-free in exchange for making the old house habitable. Its an enigma why Sexton wants the house, his job as a typewriter salesman takes him out on the open road, which is where he seems to be happiest. For a short while Honora joins him on the open road but when Sexton pulls off a dodgy deal to put a down payment on the house it seems like he is then happy to leave Honora behind to make the house a home.
Honora is a mysterious character, she only reveals parts of her past as the book continues and so we, the reader, take her on merit as an honest young woman bewildered by her changed status in life. Through long spells of loneliness she improves the house, learns to cook good meals for her husband and her only pastime is to collect the sea glass which washes up on the isolated beach. Honora delights in her collection although it is only old pieces of glass worn away by the tide to produce sparkling colours of every hue.
On one such trip she meets Vivian, a bored socialite with a private income who owns one of the many summerhouses dotted along the beach. Vivian is one of the few survivors of her social set who wasnt affected by the wall street crash. When Sexton loses his job and goes to work in the cotton mills of the nearby city of Ely Falls, he becomes involved with a gang of men who want to bring about a union to strike for better wages. Half the city works in the mills, men, women and even small children and as the financial slump affects the mill owners, events start to take a dramatic turn for the worst.
Against this background of unrest McDermott, a young loom mechanic, brings a sense of the futility of those times into sharp contrast with the poverty of families living on the breadline. He takes a young boy under his wing and rescues him from the mills. Moved by forces beyond his control he unwittingly brings the communist union leaders into the Beecher household, where Vivian plays at being the beneficiary to the men gathered there. As the strike gains momentum, Sexton becomes so unfamiliar to Honora that the fragile beginning of a romance between her and McDermott threatens all she holds dear. As Sexton becomes increasingly unstable, so the force of a people cast out into the street, living on scraps of food in the communal tents boils over into violence beyond imagining.
The way in which the story is laid out is a formula which has been used before, but it works well as each chapter introduces another character. Shreves prose is sharp but simple and builds a picture of each character with deceptive ease. Its only too easy to imagine the story as a simple tale of man versus the oppressors in a time when America was facing its worst crisis of the century. Honora could be easily dismissed as a rather naïve young woman while Sexton becomes the villain of the plot, but life rarely is so simplistic.
In the early part of the story Vivian is introduced as a product of the times she lived in, yet she has some redeeming characteristics and although it may seem she is playing a dangerous game there is a depth to her that cannot be overlooked.
McDermott is another such character, possibly the best in the story, as he seems to foresee what direction the strike will take; yet he too is fragile when faced with a love that cannot be consummated. Yet there is no idealism or contrived emotional impact to the story and this is where Shreve excels. She gives us a situation, lays out her characters and without twisting the heartstrings invites us into her world to make of it what we will.
I found myself thinking of the analogy between Honoras collection of sea glass and the theme of the book. To her it is a miracle, a piece of simple glass eroded by time and the elements to make of it a glorious kaleidoscope of colour. Placed against a background of pure white the colours take on a life of their own.
So Shreves characters shine or grow dim, according to their settings. Of course different readers will see different things in the whole concept of sea glass. Glass is sharp and cuts the fingers, but when worn down it loses it edge, maybe there is a parable there, or perhaps I am looking too deeply? Who can say?
Many people read a novel just for the story and this one packs a punch, so you can read it as a thwarted love story set in interesting times. Certainly all the right elements are there, the wounded woman, the love-struck young man, the plight of a people caught up in a situation not of their own making. But to me it spoke more and this is my own personal concept of a good book, if I think about what Im reading then that book has a power to move me in some way. I really enjoyed it and can see why it became a bestseller. Strangely enough I dont think I would read it again, I feel I got enough out of the first reading, but I will certainly look out for more of this authors books and I think thats enough recommendation.
Down to the boring bits: Depending on which copy you want to buy, mine retails at £6.99.Amazons prices are £6.39 with used books starting at about £1.50.
Plaudits as follows: -
This is a finely written story of human beings pushed to the edge and Shreve is a powerful but still accessible writer Sunday Mirror.
Shreve does not use her characters frivolously .the true power of her novel comes from the appalling social conditions she describes so vividly New York Times.
Thanks for reading.
The year is 1929 and Honora Beecher and her husband, Sexton, are just settling into a new marriage and a cottage on the coast of New Hampshire. While Honora fixes up the derelict house and searches for bits of sea glass on the beach.