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Anita Shreve is a prolific novelist; Body Surfing sticks to familiar territory, set on the New Hampshire coast, scrutinizing family troubles in the relatively affluent middle classes. Indeed, the Anita Shreve website sets out the themes in her work: critical moments, home & family, pushed to the edge, water, and loss & grief. Sydney Sklar, 29, is a psychology graduate student, and has already been through two marriages. She divorced her first husband, an air racer, because his job was too dangerous and he would not change his job. Her second husband, a medical student, died in a hospital of a heart condition. She is on hiatus from her graduate studies and has taken a number of different jobs, mainly to take her mind off her situation. When the novel starts, Sydney is working for, and living with, the Edwards family, as a tutor for their youngest child, Julie, who is 18, and has learning difficulties. Julie's older brothers, Ben, 35, who works in real estate, and Jeff, 31, who is an MIT political science professor, visit the family summer home on occasional weekends. Sydney is intrigued to meet them, and she is attracted to Jeff. Jeff has a girlfriend, but their relationship seems rather distant, so it is no great surprise when he ends it and turns his attention to Sydney. Indeed, he sweeps her off her feet, and soon they are engaged to be married. Can Sydney really find happiness at last?
It's rather easy to snipe at Shreve's predictability of tone, yet the plot itself has enough going on to keep the story interesting and the early descriptions of Sydney observing the Edwards family are superlative in their minutiae. Sydney analyzes tiny details for their significance, especially concerning Mrs. Edwards who is slightly anti-Semitic, and is meaner in spirit, more concerned with social niceties than her husband. We get the strong impression that Sydney is a great judge of other people, almost able to read their inner thoughts telepathically. Yet when it comes to the two Edwards sons, it turns out that she misses a great deal, and hardly understands them at all. This contrast, which Shreve does not overplay, is one of the strongest features of the novel. One might read it not just as a comment on Sydney, but also as a comment on psychological fiction writing: Shreve's work is immersed in the details of relationships and the nuances of interactions between her characters, yet there are limits to how much even a novelist can know about the people she creates.
The unabridged audiobook is read by Lolita Davidovich. The reading is strong and subtle. However, the use of background music at apparently crucial points in the story is intrusive. The music itself is classically themed, romantic in its tone, and unmemorable. That's fine as background music, to signal the start and end of each CD of the audiobook, and the producers here don't use these emotional signals a huge amount, so my complaint is more a matter of personal taste. In some shorter radio productions, on APR's This American Life, for instance, the use of music is used to strong dramatic effect, but here it seems rather trite and heightens the sense that this is a novel aimed at middle-aged women who belong to book clubs.
On the whole, Body Surfing is a carefully written novel that succeeds well in its portrait of a period of a few years in Sydney's life. Good reading for the summer.
© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.