October 1, 2011

Body Surfing

Body Surfing by Anita Shreve
2007 Back Bay Books
Finished 8/19/11
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)

Publisher’s Blurb:

At the age of twenty-nine, Sydney has already been once divorced and once widowed. Trying to regain her footing, she has signed on to tutor the teenage daughter of a well-to-do couple as they spend a sultry summer at their ocean-front New Hampshire cottage.

But when the Edwardses’ two grown sons arrive at the beach house, Sydney finds herself caught in a destructive web of old tensions and bitter rivalries. As the brothers vie for her affections, the fragile existence Sydney has rebuilt is threatened.

With the subtle wit, lyrical language, and brilliant insight into the human heart that are the hallmarks of her acclaimed fiction, Shreve weaves a novel about marriage, family, and the supreme courage it takes to love.

I’d almost given up hope for finding another novel by Shreve that would entertain me as well as Fortune's Rocks and The Pilot's Wife, especially after my recent disappointment with Sea Glass and previous disappointments with A Wedding in December, Light on Snow, and The Weight of Water. While Body Surfing was not a stellar read in comparison to Fortune’s Rocks, it was highly enjoyable with likeable (and believable) characters who continue to haunt my thoughts. I zipped through this novel in less than four days, which is saying something, since lately I’ve been choosing afternoon bike rides over reading.

Shreve pulled me in quickly with this opening scene:

Three o’clock, the dead hour. The faint irritation of sand grit between bare foot and floorboards. Wet towels hanging from bedposts and porch railings. A door, caught in a gust, slams, and someone near it emits the expected cry of surprise. A southwest wind, not the norm even in August, sends stifling air into the many rooms of the old summerhouse. The hope is for an east wind off the water, and periodically someone says it.

An east wind now would be a godsend.

And, yes, this is the same New Hampshire beach house in which Shreve sets her earlier books (The Pilot’s Wife, Fortune’s Rocks and Sea Glass).

I love Shreve’s attention to detail in this passage. I can almost smell the salty air and hear the breakers crashing against the shoreline:

On the porch, red geraniums are artfully arranged against the lime-green of the dune grass, the blue of the water. Not quite primary colors, hues seen only in nature.

Knife blades of grass pierce the wooden slats of the boardwalk. Sweet pea overtakes the thatch. Unwanted fists of thistle push upward from the sand. On the small deck at the end of the boardwalk are two white Adirondack chairs, difficult to get out of, and a faded umbrella lying behind them. Two rusted and immensely heavy iron bases for the umbrella sit in a corner, neither of which, Sydney guesses, will ever leave the deck.

Wooden steps with no railing lead to a crescent-shaped beach to the left, a rocky coastline to the right. Sydney runs across the hot sand to the edge of the water. The surf is a series of sinuous rolls, and when she closes her eyes, she can hear the spray. She prepares herself for the cold. Better than electroshock therapy, Mr. Edwards always says, for clearing the head.

I lived in San Diego for 20 years and I spent as much time at the beach as I possibly could. I loved to go for long walks along the shore, allowing the waves to tickle my feet in the cooler months and diving beneath them during the lazy days of summer. I never learned how to surf with a board, but I loved to body surf and spent many hours in the water with my friends. We’d swim out past the breakers to a buoy and dive down to see if we could spot any garibaldi or other interesting fish and then turn back toward the beach, catching wave after wave until we were exhausted. Shreve not only captures the essence of this sport, but she could have been writing about any one of my experiences in the waves:

A seizure of frigid water, a roiling of white bubbles. The sting of salt in the sinuses as she surfaces. She stands and stumbles and stands again and shakes herself like a dog. She hugs her hands to her chest and relaxes only when her feet begin to numb. She dives once more, and when she comes up for air she turns onto her back, letting the waves, stronger and taller than they appear from shore, carry her up and over the crest and down again into the trough. She is buoyant flotsam, shocked into sensibility.

She body surfs in the ocean, getting sand down the neckline of her suit. As a child, when she took off her bathing suit, she would find handfuls of sand in the crotch. She lowers herself into the ocean to wash away the mottled clumps against her stomach, but then she sees a good wave coming. She stands and turns her back to it and springs onto the crest. The trick always is to catch the crest. Hands pointed, eyes shut, she is a bullet through the white surge. She scrapes her naked hip and thigh against the bottom.

My friend, Nan, says she thinks I am meant to live by the sea and I do believe she’s right. Until I can figure out a way to do that, I’ll live vicariously through books like Body Surfing.

I love the UK cover art, don't you?


  1. Anonymous7:59 AM

    Oh, Les, I'm intrigued by this one. I had to look back to see which Shreve books I've read. My list says only FORTUNE'S ROCKS in July of 2001. I thought I had read another, but perhaps I didn't finish it. I love the idea that she set these various books in the same house, but the stories are not connected or sequels. I'll have to search this one out.

    And, I agree with Nan. Not much sea in NE is there? I've always thought you were a "California Girl" at heart. Love the shot of you. At your Mom's? Did I tell you that I've made my new office/library a shrine to Oregon? I'll have to show it off at some point. Still have a bit of tweaking to do. I had some of the pictures I took at the Oregon beach enlarged and framed. I can sigh over them. ;-)

  2. I'm glad you found another Shreve to enjoy. I hope you figure out a way to live by the sea.

  3. Anonymous8:45 AM

    Reading your review brought me back to our days at the beach together (love the view of Del Mar!)... Especially diving down to grab sand at the base of the bouy and body surfing for hours - then finding handfuls of sand in my suit. I can see how this author's book would resonate with you! Close your eyes and "breathe in" the salty air... Listen to the crash of waves and seagull cries. Savor the beach in your mind's eye! :). ~ gwen

  4. I think I *always* love the UK covers better than the US covers. Why do we always get the drab, dull covers? I wonder what the marketers are thinking!!!

  5. I definitely run hot and cold with Anita Shreve, too. I really liked The Pilot's Wife, but found Sea Glass and Light on Snow to be pretty lackluster. It's good to hear that this one shows a little more promise because I've got it and a few others waiting on my shelf. And I wish mine had the UK cover art! It's nice!

  6. Yes, the UK cover is better! Is that a photo of you in San Diego?
    It could be England!

  7. I think I have this one languishing on my shelf.

  8. Another Shreve! Glad this one was a winner for you. If I choose to read another Shreve (I have several, but not sure which ones at the moment) I'll have to consult this post. :)

    San Diego!?! I visited there once and LOVED it! That city would be difficult to move away from.

  9. I've always been landlocked, myself, so the sea doesn't call out to me as it does to you. I enjoy reading about it, though. Anita Shreve's books are always iffy -- some I love, some I don't. I'm glad this is a good one.

    Les, dear, I can't find my address book. Would you send me your mailing address, please?

  10. I didn't realize that she had a new one out. I'm relieved to read that you enjoyed it as I remember your past reviews! I would love to live on the water, preferably a lake for me! Thanks for the fantastic review!

  11. I went to add this to my Goodreass and realized it's not new...silly me!

  12. I'm glad you found another good Shreve novel! After my last few hit or miss experiences, I've just about given up on her - but will add this to my list. There is definitely something special about being near the water. It's always been such a soothing, calming influence for me.

  13. Sometimes I think of starting at the beginning, and reading right through all of her books in publication order. I did quite like Light on Snow. I wrote about her once in a book journal:

    'I don't think she is an excellent writer, but her stories do make me want to keep turning the page.'

    I've only read LOS, and The Weight of Water, a painful book but which I still liked. The mystery on the island is still talked about:


    Thanks for the nudge to begin reading AS in earnest.

  14. Apologies to all for the delay in responding to your lovely comments. It's been a long week!

    Kay - Yes, if you enjoyed Fortune's Rocks, I think you'd like this one, too. And The Pilot's Wife!

    No, there really isn't much sea around here. :( And, yes, I guess I am a "California Girl" at heart, but I'd be happy anywhere along the West Coast. Yes, that photo of me was taken at my mom's in Little Whale Cove (Depoe Bay). I'm glad I put it up on my blog a few years ago, because it's one of the photos I lost when my computer crashed.

    I can't wait to see pictures of your Oregon shrine!! What a great idea. I've enlarged and framed several photos from our trips to Oregon and the San Juan Islands, too. Such wonderful memories.

    Kathy - Me, too!!

    Gwen - I have such great memories of those summers spent at 15th Street/Firepit. I'd forgotten about grabbing sand at the base of the buoy!

    rhapsodyinbooks - I've seen a lot of lovely book covers in the US, but the UK covers always seem more appealing to me, too.

    Megan - I won't give up on Shreve, since I occasionally find a gem like this one. I will, however, check the reviews and ratings a bit more in the future.

    Kay Guest - The photo was taken in Oregon. My folks live in Depoe Bay and the bench overlooking the water is in a community called Little Whale Cove.

    Pam - I'd say it's worth picking up sometime soon.

    Joy - I'm glad it was a winner, too. I'd just about given up on this author. I still have a few more on my shelves, but I think I'll wait a bit before trying another.

    Isn't San Diego great. I lived there for 20 years and lived in several communities (Leucadia, Del Mar, Solana Beach, Tierrasanta, Santee, and Vista). It's grown so much since we left in 1992 and while I miss it, I'm not sure I'd like to live there again. Well, unless I won the lottery and could afford to live on the coast and not work. The traffic is pretty awful! But the climate is perfect. :)

    Nancy - Funny how Shreve's books are hit & miss for so many readers. I'm glad this one was good, too.

    Staci - I would love to live near the ocean OR a lake! I just love being near the water. Nope, not a new book, but still worth reading. :)

    JoAnn - I'm glad I found a good one, too. As I said to Nancy, it's interesting that so many readers find Shreve's novels to be hits or misses. I'd almost given up on her, too.

    Yes, the water always soothes my soul.

    Nan - I agree. I don't think she's a remarkable writer, but some of her stories resonate so strongly with me and I find those are the books I can't put down.


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