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Shreve's sea-girt drama doesn't plunge too deeply


Body Surfing
By Anita Shreve
Little, Brown, 295 pp., $25.99

Many reviews of Anita Shreve's latest novel, "Body Surfing," will categorize it as a pretty good beach read since the action is set in a charming old cottage near Portsmouth on New Hampshire's shore. The characters go kayaking, drive Land Rovers and Boston Whalers, wear boat shoes and old bathing suits, and eat lobsters, steamers, and triple-berry pie.

The novel's title, however, suggests that Shreve may be aiming for something more. The metaphor is not subtle. The "trick" of body surfing "always is to catch the crest." The Atlantic's water is frigid; that makes it "better than electro shock therapy . . . for clearing the head." The novel's main character, Sydney, is expert at "letting the waves, stronger and taller than they appear from shore, carry her up and over the crest and down again into the trough."

At the beginning of the action, in the summer of 2002, Sydney is pretty much stuck in the trough. She is 29 , stalled in her graduate psychology studies at Brandeis, and divorced from her first husband, an air racer who "flew through trees at 250 miles an hour." Her second husband, an emergency room doctor, treated her injuries from a car accident, took her to dinner at Biba, married her, and then died from a burst aneurysm. Now she has a summer job as a live-in tutor for Julie Edwards, the 18-year-old daughter of a wealthy architect and his snobby wife. The very beautiful Julie is a slow learner and a poor bet for her mother's choices, Mount Holyoke and Swarthmore, not to mention eighth-grade math.

Thus, Mrs. Edwards is bound to be disappointed, no matter how diligently Sydney tutors Julie. In contrast, Mr. Edwards, who cultivates beautiful roses in the most difficult setting, is friendly toward Sydney. But there is no avoiding his wife's distaste for Sydney's half-Jewish heritage. To Mrs. Edwards, the tutor is barely acceptable company. Sydney's position in the household drifts between domestic servant and nanny, and her place at the table is always a bit uncertain.

We are meant to be moved by the tragedies in Sydney's past, her current rootlessness, and the dislocation she feels in the Edwards household. Yet her story is less moving than Shreve's descriptions of the New Hampshire coastline, the beach colony, and that charming beach house. We are also meant to be happy when Sydney meets Julie's two brothers and is presented with another chance at love. From the moment of their arrival at the beach, Ben, 35, a corporate real estate broker , and Jeff, 31, a political science professor at MIT, compete for Sydney's attention. They urge her to join them in their first-night tradition, body surfing in the deep summer darkness. In the frigid water, barely able to see, Sydney feels fear, then exhilaration, and finally anger when a "touch fleeting , and yet deliberate" passes like a violation down her body. She assumes it is Ben and hates him for it. After all, Jeff is about to become engaged to the daughter of an old family friend.

Throughout most of the novel, Sydney simply does not understand the actions of those around her. An only child, she does not have "the slightest idea of what goes on between brothers," and she hardly knows why Julie makes the choices she does. Her parents divorced when she was young; now, immersed in the Edwards family, she feels herself substituting "emotion for intelligence." What is the use of intelligence, if our lives are managed by a "cruel, indifferent, and whimsical god"?

There is something of the soap opera in this kind of thinking, as there is in the apparent randomness of each character's actions. Why Jeff and not Ben? Why finish the degree at BU and not Brandeis? Shreve's shift away from believable action and clear motive may not trouble her fans, because the real focus of this novel is the beach house. Insiders will probably recognize the house, since it is also central to "The Pilot's Wife," "Fortune's Rock," and "Sea Glass." Shreve suggests that the Edwards family saga does not match up to the experiences of these earlier characters. Sydney muses that the "personal history of the house has thinned out . . . is now less dramatic, less consequential" than it had been.

There are several examples of the house-as-main-character in American literature; Poe's "House of Usher" and Hawthorne's "House of the Seven Gables" are two of the more familiar. Yet there is something of a parlor trick in Shreve's use of the device, despite the weighty discussions of beauty and family at the end of the book. The novel feels a little "thinned out," especially for those who admired "Resistance" and "The Weight of Water." "Body Surfing" is a good book for a hot summer day, but a deeper dive into a more "consequential" world would be even better.

Judy Budz is a professor of English at Fitchburg State College.