Shreve (Sea Glass, 2002, etc.) daringly makes the bad guy her narrator in a creepy tale of relentless love.
Nicholas Van Tassel may not seem so awful at first, as he describes the hotel fire in the winter of 1899 that introduced him to Etna Bliss. We quickly see that this 30-year-old English professor at Thrupp College in New Hampshire is pompous, ambitious, and something of a hypocrite, as well as a minor plagiarist, but we’re inclined to sympathy thanks to Nicholas’s immediate passion for Etna. Her mother has recently died, she’s living temporarily with her uncle, and the future seems to promise little more to this regal and mysterious woman than life as an unpaid governess to her sister’s children. Unless she marries Nicholas, that is, who isn’t above pressing his suit on those grounds. She accepts, making sure he knows that “I don’t think that I could . . . love you . . . in the way that a wife must love a husband.” (Their sex life, in fact, proves a disaster.) We already know through Nicholas’s framing narration, from September 1933, that this marriage has turned out badly—but the story’s central section, from fall 1914 through spring 1915, reveals just how badly—and just how far Nicholas is prepared to go to assert his desires. As he campaigns to be named dean of Thrupp’s faculty, he learns that Etna has a secret independent life. It’s entirely innocent, but that doesn’t stem Nicholas’s rage, especially when he learns that his wife had a lover before they were married. Shreve lets her narrator damn himself by his own sanctimonious words as he stoops to Jew-baiting, marital rape, and persuading his teenaged daughter to tell a catastrophic lie—all to further his ambitions, which, it becomes increasingly plain, are not just selfish but scarily obsessive. Still, since Nicholas is our window into the events, we feel his humanity even as he performs a series of despicable acts.
Full-bodied storytelling with an unflinching moral backbone: one of Shreve’s best.