The Price of Passion in 19th Century New England


In her first book since her enormously popular Oprah-selected breakthrough, “The Pilot’s Wife,” Anita Shreve has spun an unabashedly romantic, compulsively readable tale of illicit love and its harsh consequences in late-19th century upper-class New England society. “Fortune’s Rocks” has all the opulence, delicacy and textural strength of the luxurious fabrics that drape its characters--materials with which Shreve sets the scene and demonstrates her period mastery: chiffon, challis, crinoline, crepe de Chine, satin, moire, tulle and voile. Her seventh novel is more than a confection but less than a full intellectual meal. It is a delicious high tea, a cross between “Ethan Frome” and a meticulously art-directed Merchant-Ivory film.

Once again, Shreve returns to her favorite locale, the dramatic and volatile New Hampshire coast. Olivia Biddeford is the sharply intelligent, audacious only child of a Boston Brahmin family that summers in Fortune’s Rocks, a community named for the promontory on which many a ship has been wrecked. Olympia, too, will founder there, over the same sort of conflict between social and individual fulfillment that trips up Edith Wharton’s characters.

But in June 1899, when the novel begins, Olympia is 15 and on the cusp of womanhood. Shreve sets the tone for her heroine’s imminent sexual awakening with her opening description of Olympia as she walks along the shore and becomes aware of dozens of male eyes following her: “Her gait along the shallow shell of a beach alters. Her feet, as she makes slow progress, create slight and scandalous indentations in the sand.”


On the summer solstice, Olympia meets a friend of her father’s, John Haskell, a physician committed to improving the deplorable lot of Franco American millworkers in a nearby town--in other words, a good man. He is 26 years her senior and has a lovely wife and four children who are away while their own “cottage” is under construction. Against Haskell’s better judgment, he and Olympia are drawn irresistibly into an ardent love affair that they know--even as his lips first touch her collarbone--will destroy not just their own lives but their families’. Shreve raises questions about whether love can ever be a crime against nature, and she deflects easy moral judgments by pitting the lovers’ reckless passion against their exemplary work for the poor.

Why this focus on the last century as we’re about to enter a new one? It’s a question Olympia and her father discuss after she reads several works including “A Tale of Two Cities” and “The Scarlet Letter.” Her father argues that “the social mores of a previous era might better highlight certain moral dilemmas of our own time,” while Olympia asserts that the authors “might simply have been drawn to the baroque language and richer color of an earlier era.”

One suspects it is the accouterments as much as the social issues that have attracted Shreve to the turn of the last century. She has shown herself an able researcher in novels such as “Resistance” and “The Weight of Water,” and for “Fortune’s Rocks,” she masters not only the nuances of the period’s restrictive social mores, but complex legal and medical details as well. She paints a world in which an open collar button is enough to suggest waywardness.

It is also a solemn world in which characters rarely gush but always speak “thoughtfully” and spend much time “gazing at the water and letting [their] thoughts float upon its surface.” “Fortune’s Rocks” employs a subdued, measured tone to build a page-turning tale about an overwhelming, dangerous passion. Shreve’s characters take themselves and their problems utterly seriously, yet they rarely try the reader’s patience. Perhaps this is because they are intriguing and sympathetic, and their questions are serious: What makes a loved one yours--legal ties or emotional ones? For Shreve, a true romantic, “Great love comes once and one time only,” and it is the emotional ties that bind.