The Last Time They Met- Anita Shreve

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.

*Spoilers ahead*

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?

12 thoughts on “The Last Time They Met- Anita Shreve

  1. littlenavyfish

    I have a thing for tragic, slightly twisted love stories as well – particular favourites being Atonement and The Time Traveller’s Wife – even though they’re so often agony to read. Great review 🙂

  2. David

    I am a huge fan of Anita Shreve. I have read everyone of her books and I can honestly say that this is one of the best. My favorite is The Weight of Water, which is loosely related since they share a main character. Some of her early work is also great, such as Eden Close and Strange Fits of Passion. It also helps that I live in New England where most of her story lines take place.

    1. Siobhan

      Thanks for your comment David. I am planning to read The Weight of Water so that I can see how the two link together. It definitely increases interest when a book is set in your local area. That’s one of the things I like about living in Oxford, it has such a rich history and literary tradition that it often crops up in books. There weren’t any books about my hometown when I was growing up. Still aren’t as far as I’m aware. Maybe I’ll write one eventually!

  3. CapeCodNative

    OMG–I picked up 2 of Anita Shreve’s books last week for $1 at a local thrift shop–thought I would be happy to have something to read during the 2 days of Rosh Ha Shonah when I don’t answer the phone, work, drive myself anywhere–just 2 days of contemplation and reading. WELL–luckily I read Where or When first instead of The Last Time They Met, or I would have thrown both out the window instead of just TLTTM. Just kidding–I didn’t throw it out the window, BUT I did spend HOURS online trying to figure out what exactly I was reading–specifically what the ending meant for the rest of the story. At the risk of spoiling the book–it seems that everything after the “accident” at age 17 was a dream (?) or perhaps a story/novel written by Thomas?!? This seems a bit overdone if it was actually either–too descriptive on Linda’s part to feel like a dream or really even just a story in Thomas’ mind–BUT–kudos to Anita Shreve–like a BAD commercial with or without that “earworm” song you can’t get out of your mind–the ending has pissed off and/or aggravated SO many readers, I am thinking Ms Shreve has done her job well! No one says you have to create something prople LOVE–lots of art in museums today does the same–people write to say that they HATE it or resent selling prices, attention by critics, etc.–and this is for art selling for hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars–soooo hasn’t this sort of been the same? Lots of readers (viewers/dollars spent) for a book some love and some hate–when all is said and done, just the fact that ANYONE remembers and talks about or reviews the book/story means it probably did its job well (and so then did Ms Shreve!)

  4. Siobhan Post author

    I enjoyed your comment so much CapeCodNative. I get a lot of visitors coming hear searching for the ending of The Last Time They Met, and I think it’s a real marmite thing- you either love the ambiguity or you hate it. I’ve had books make me feel really frustrated when I felt that the ending was a cop out, and others frustrate me when I felt they should have been left open. I think Shreve played this one right for me, though the way I read it that does make Thomas Janes a raging megalomaniac.

  5. O Darlene Jennings

    I beat CapeCod Native’s price…I got the book…The Last Time They Met…for 25 cents…just finished it today…did like it very much..but the ending just got me. Linda died in the accident? Now Im trying to get my head around all that happened afterwards, Im still not clear on it. Guess I will ‘write it off’ to one of those things. I will be keeping my eye out for her other books tho. I could relate as I was a teen with a first love set in the time of the book. There was no accident…no deaths, I just dumped him when I saw he had no future. I began dating a guy who had a crush on me since we were sophmores and has proven to be a wonderful Father, provider and my best friend for the past 47 years, as we celebrate our anniversay in July.

    1. Siobhan Post author

      Wow that really is a bargain. And congratulations on 47 happy years together. Yes, my understanding is that Linda died and that everything else we read about her life is something that he has invented. I would say to console himself but she suffered a few tragedies of her own. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Rose Hogan

    I couldn’t get my head round the ending! What was the meaning of the story if Linda had died before any of it happened? Was it all in Thomas’s head? Surely not. Felt a bit cheated. But I did enjoy the rest of the story. Glad I didn’t know how it was going to end before I got there!

    1. Susan Evind

      I agree. I felt a bit cheated in the ending. It almost seemed like a “fooled ya” moment, which I never appreciate in books or screenplays. When a reading or theater audience is taken into the writer’s confidence and has our attention, and then let down or played with in the ending, it’s very unsatisfying. Seriously. I wasn’t impressed with Shreve’s technique of making us appreciate the *great* imagination her character Thomas James had in making up Linda’s & his on-again-off-again lives. But I guess that is Shreve’s talent. Sorry I just didn’t find the ending interesting–a real let-down.

      1. Siobhan Post author

        Hi Susan, thanks for stopping by. It’s been so long since I’ve read this now but I do remember the what the heck of it all. From memory I thought the ending was an interesting delve into the kind of narcissism of the main character for me, I’m sure some saw it as a tribute to the female character, but I can see it would definitely feel like a kick in the teeth when you’ve ploughed through the book.

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