In Shreve’s ninth novel, a bitter strike racks the New Hampshire coastal community that also provided the setting for Fortune’s Rocks (1999).
Newlyweds Honora and Sexton Beecher move there in June 1929. Twenty-year-old Honora barely knows her husband; Sexton loves his wife but quickly proves just as shifty as you’d expect a traveling salesman to be. He cuts a few corners to get them a mortgage just days before the stock market crashes, loses his job, and is forced to go to work at one of the local textile mills that have been slashing wages and speeding up production for years before the Depression began. Shreve cogently contrasts the Beechers’ fearful, middle-class scrimping with the more desperate situations of mill workers like Francis, an 11-year-old who works the bobbins, and McDermott, at 20 already nearly deaf from the looms’ noise. On the other end of the social spectrum is wealthy, hard-drinking, promiscuous Vivian Burton, whose friendship with Honora draws her into the strike that erupts after yet another pay cut. Falling in with labor activists gives Vivian a new perspective on life: “My sort,” she says to McDermott, “seem, well, despicable, really”—though that doesn’t prevent her from rewriting a communist strike leader’s cliché-ridden leaflet in one of the novel’s few humorous scenes. Honora and Vivian gain purpose and moral stature over the narrative’s 15-month course, but the men don’t fare so well. Sexton’s stupid (but convincingly motivated) recklessness provokes a violent climax that puts an end to any hope for the burgeoning tenderness between Honora and McDermott, while Francis sees the two people he most loves brutally murdered. The mood here is dark, but Shreve’s fans will take some comfort in her typically elegant, lucid prose, evocative of the natural world and subtly probing of character. Even the abrupt entrance of death, so annoying in The Last Time They Met (2001), here seems plausible and appropriate.
A sterling effort from an intelligent and entertaining popular novelist.