I brought this book to the beach for Labor Day weekend thinking it would be a relaxing read, but it was far from my usual beach material. I was entranced immediately by Anita Shreve’s storytelling style, how she made me feel like I was in Kathryn’s house with her as she got the devastating news in the very first chapter. This book was written with the perfect lens, putting us close enough to the action to feel their pain but letting us observe what is happening for ourselves. I only put this book down to take a nap; otherwise I read it in one quick sitting.
Until now, Kathryn Lyons’s life has been peaceful if unextraordinary: a satisfying job teaching high school in the New England mill town of her childhood; a picture-perfect home by the ocean; a precocious, independent-minded fifteen-year-old daughter; and a happy marriage whose occasional dull passages she attributes to the unavoidable deadening effect of time. As a pilot’s wife, Kathryn has learned to expect both intense exhilaration and long periods alone—but nothing has prepared her for the late-night knock that lets her know her husband has died in a crash.
The main theme behind this book is how can you ever really know someone? Kathryn and Jack would go for long periods without seeing each other, which is abnormal for a family or for lovers. That’s why Kathryn doesn’t think much of it when Jack becomes more distant or when their love life disappears almost completely. After all, her and Mattie’s lives are put on hold each time he leaves, like they’re holding their breath, only able to relax and be themselves when he’s back. But this time he’s not coming back, and Kathryn begins to find a trail of clues that start as insignificant and harmless but quickly escalate into something else altogether. While she works on discovering the truth about her husband, she works to hide all traces from the nosy media and from her daughter.
It’s easy to justify someone’s behavior when you want to believe in them, like Kathryn did with Jack’s increasing absency. But once the truth is out, you look back and see all the signs pointing to the one thing you failed to see the first time. The natural reaction is to feel awful for not noticing, to feel betrayed, to blame yourself. But it’s not your fault at all.
I enjoyed being taken on the emotional roller coaster with Kathryn. The natural progression of grief showed through really well in this book, especially in the memory chapters. Early on, Kathryn remembered all the good times with Jack, all the things she loved the best about him because she was lost in grief. But later, she begins to remember some disturbing and unpleasant scenes. I don’t know what it feels like to be a parent, but I think I got a glimpse of it through observing Kathryn’s fierce love for Mattie.
I loved the mix of chapters written in the present moment (written in past tense) and the chapters written about her past (written in the present tense). This ironic use of grammar made it almost seem like the past felt more real to Kathryn than the present. A wistful tone came out whenever there was a scene with the beach house that meant so much to Kathryn.
The end leaves several questions unanswered, the biggest being why does a person behave the way they do? Why would a seemingly happy man feel the need to lead a double life? But it wouldn’t be realistic to answer these questions since Kathryn will never know the answer either. After finishing this book, I felt very introspective about my own life and asked myself all sorts of questions. What do I want in life? How will I know when I’m happy? What happens if that changes somewhere along the way? And the last, most difficult question: what would I do?