These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind,
With tranquil restoration- Tintern Abbey- Wordsworth
When Linda Fallon and Thomas Janes meet at a conference reception in Toronto, it is the first time they have seen each other in twenty-six years and each has been marked by age and personal tragedy. The novel moves backwards in time, starting at the age of fifty-two to follow the lovers through time and across continents, exploring the passion that pulls them together and the circumstances that have forced them apart.
While I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve spotted that I quite like a nice, twisted love story in which the characters get their feelings trampled but still love one another to the point of self-destruction… often because of their own character flaws. Regardless of what that says about me, Shreve does not disappoint on this score. Linda is reticent, filled with catholic guilt and a sense of being unworthy. Thomas is simultaneously direct and evasive, wanting beauty where in reality there can only be suffering.
The reverse chronological order is interesting – almost an inverse of The Prelude by Wordsworth to which Thomas refers as a teen, and which Wordsworth intended almost to track his own poetic development- an important theme in this novel. I would imagine challenging for the writer to create this type of chronology effectively with decisions of what to reveal and what to conceal in order for the story to compel while still having impact when you reach the early life of the characters. Following the characters from middle age, to their years as young adults, to their teenage years, Shreve has managed this literary peep show with aplomb. Despite thinking I knew how the novel would end, I was left shaking and this was not just the fever I find myself confined to bed with. It takes a certain cunning to work a shock ending that quickly and effectively (though if you will analyse in depth it doesn’t always add up and some of the dialogue is… interesting), and Shreve evidently has bags of talent.
I’m clearly not the only person to think this. I recognised the name of Linda Fallon the character as that of a romance author I’d spotted around and about. A little googling reveals that this is the pseudonym of Linda Winstead Jones, though I can’t pin point a date at which she started using the name, I suspect that the book may have influenced this- a bit of a hero-worship tribute perhaps?
Thomas Janes appears to be a character in Anita Shreve’s later novel The Weight of Water, which links into some of the events described in this book. I’m quite interested to read this and see how they tie in together, and how much of Thomas’ clearly rich internal life is hinted at.
Though the ending was a shock, and I really liked it, mulling back over the novel I have been considering how it affects my sympathies to the character of Thomas.
When you learn that Linda died in the car crash, and that the flash forward of her life may be what we have been reading, the possibility arrives that we could also interpret the narrative as Thomas’ “enduring struggle to capture in words the infinite possibilities of a life not lived.” Indeed this is strongly hinted at in the last paragraph which talks about a love which exists only in his imagination. Why then, include so much guilt and trauma in Linda’s share of the story? Is this because of the events in her past which associate her with Mary Magdalene in his mind and tinge her with guilt, however undeserved? Or is it a narcissism (suggested by the fact that no version of Linda’s future seems to move on from him) which makes him unwilling to be culpable for his inability to commit to and love his future wives, casting himself in the role of faithful lover by remaining true to the girl he lost at such a young age?
It was something which interested me, especially with the references to Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey and Keats’ poetry in general which are filled with discussions about the importance of memory and the power of imagination. And maybe all lovers are narcissists- surely you have to be to idealise your love as separate from the other vast swathes of human emotion?