Bestselling Shreve (The Pilot's Wife, 1998, etc.) reuses a character from a previous novel in this new work tracing a doomed love affair backwards in time.
We meet 52-year-old Linda Fallon checking into a Toronto hotel for a literary conference, at which she meets fellow American poet Thomas Janes, whom she hasn't seen since the disastrous denouement of their adulterous affair in Africa 25 years earlier. Since then, as readers of The Weight of Water (1997) already know, he's seen his five-year-old daughter drown and gotten a second divorce. Thomas still carries the torch Linda first ignited when she was a working-class Catholic teenager recently returned from a Magdalene home for "wayward girls" and he was an Episcopalian from the right side of the tracks dazzled by her boldness and individuality. During the conference they fall into bed again, and Part One ends with a parting at the airport that offers hope of long-delayed happiness for this star-crossed pair. Part Two depicts their encounter in Kenya: both married to other people but retaining tender memories of the adolescent romance cut short by a car accident, they're briefly happy until Thomas's wife finally achieves her desperate desire to get pregnant, triggering an ugly confrontation the author inexplicably doesn't allow us to witness. Part Three finally gets us back to Hull, Massachusetts, but the story of Linda's abuse by her aunt's boyfriend and her sexual healing through Thomas's love is overshadowed by an outrageous final plot twist. It's fine to fool the reader if you play fair—for example, as Rebecca Goldstein did in Properties of Light (2000). Shreve, by contrast, doesn't suggest that her solid (if not especially gripping) storyline is anything other than what it seems until she tears the entire premise to shreds in the book's two last pages.
The shock ending and pretentious elements, such as Linda's unconvincing struggle with her faith, can't disguise the fact that the author is very short of fresh ideas here.