October 1, 2011
Body Surfing by Anita Shreve
2007 Back Bay Books
Rating: 4/5 (Very Good)
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?