Some hurts can never be forgotten, can never be assuaged. Some books show us the basest side of human nature. Some viewpoint characters in novels deserve little reader sympathy.
Even when evidencing these uncomfortable truths, some books can be great reads in the hands of a talented author.
The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve is one such book.
A melancholy person by nature, I don't require a happy ending in my fiction. I rarely want to read about people who have fewer flaws than me.
I do, however, enjoy something well written with a chance to learn about human nature, to revel in others' mistakes, or simply to learn something I hadn't known before.
In the most skillful way imaginable, Ms. Shreve intertwines a modern-day narrative with a 19th century story of Norwegian immigrants who came to New England for better lives but face privation, isolation, and hardship to unfathomable degrees.
Say what you will about popular authors, commercially successful authors. Yes, Anita Shreve is the author of numerous bestsellers, including her most well known book, The Pilot's Wife.
Shreve writes masterfully. Her sensory detail is fresh, like when she describes a sweater as "a complicated cable knit" or talks about a beautiful woman's hair as "multihued, a wood grain that curls in the humidity."
And I don't think there's a more fitting or inspired book title in contemporary literature than The Weight of Water.
The Weight of Water is written mostly in present tense, often in a stream-of-consciousness style, putting the reader inside two female protagonists' heads--a photoessayist struggling with so many issues it is like living in the head of an adult with A.D.H.D., and her counterpart from a much earlier time period, a Norwegian woman, Maren Hontvedt, whose loneliness and regret resonate deeply with Jean.
Jean is married to Thomas James, a melancholy poet whose best works are behind him. They have one small daughter, Billie, who is in the precipitous position of being the glue holding their marriage together.
Jean's receives an assignment to shoot the Isles of Shoals (Norwegian for schools, for schools of fish, since the fish were plentiful when many immigrants arrived.) She enlists the help of Thomas's brother Rich, who has a sloop, among other assets. And off they go, sailing off the coast of New Hampshire--Jean, Thomas, Billie, Rich and his beautiful girlfriend Adaline, whose presence causes Jean to brood more intently about her personal insecurities and failing marriage.
Shreve makes Thomas and Jean's marital problems apparent early on when Jean confesses to the reader, "I am trying to remember what it felt like to feel love" after she hears her husband's brother Rich making love to his beautiful girlfriend on another part of the boat.
And that's the way it is with this book. Themes swirl around like water in an eddy, sloshing into Jean's world and back into Maren's world until the weight of water crashes down on them both.
Don't expect to settle in on this book. One reads it with a sense of forboding. The reader can't get comfortable because Jean is thinking one thing, engaged in "real time" with the people around her and then the author flips to what's going on in Jean's head, and nearly as often in Maren's head.
As Jane's story unfolds, she immerses herself into using long forgotten and neglected archival material to investigate a legendary crime--the savage murders of Maren's sister and sister-in-law.
If this book sounds confusing or like a difficult read, it is not. Shreve teases out enough information and stirs up your curiosity to propel you to read on.
She also threads her graceful, often elegiac prose with these kinds of sentiments, "Are we as we age...," Jean asks everyone and no one, "repaid for all our thoughtless gestures?"
The plot is gently foreshadowed in another of Jean's musings, "I want to understand the random act, the consequences of a second's brief abandonment."
And at the same time, the reader is asking, what has Jean done? What responsibilities did she abandon if only briefly to bring such pain and suffering on herself?
Though you may figure out who really murdered two innocent immigrant women before it is revealed in the book, even with a healthy amount of foreshadowing, Jean's story will horrify the reader when it unfolds.
I hate plot-spoiler reviews, though lots of obnoxious people feel they need to tell the major plot points to write a competent book review. But I won't do that to you. The twists are too carefully and artfully wrought for me to interfere with your enjoyment of them.
I will tell you that Shreve's view of the world reminds me of the themes evident in the works of classic writers such as Victor Hugo. No relative morality for Shreve. There are absolute right and wrong courses of action, and people will ultimately reap the consequences of their actions, both good and evil.
Shreve takes chances in her writing in structure, content, tone, and themes. She always has--well before she became a household name in literary fiction--and I suspect she always will.
I have read most of Shreve's books. The Weight of Water is my favorite.
If the sea holds a fascination for you. If family of origin issues have ever plagued you. If you like when writers exhibit style and craft (some people don't and find it cumbersome). If you enjoy a touch of history in your reading. If you like all your threads knotted by the end of a book but not necessarily into a pretty macrame, than this should be your next read.