Open the pages of Fortune’s Rocks by Anita Shreve and you’ll think you’ve stepped into the world of Edith Wharton, Kate Chopin or any number of other turn-of-the-century women writers whose novels were set in refined, confining Victorian society.
Do not be fooled for an instant. Shreve’s novel is a pale imitation of those Grande Dames of Literature.
Oh sure, Fortune’s Rocks—much like Wharton’s The Age of Innocence—is filled with scenes that would startle modern readers with their conservatism. An exposed ankle in 1899 was akin to Julia Roberts flinging off her clothes and running out on the 50-yard line during the Super Bowl. It was just not good manners. Turn-of-the-century society was polite, discreet and above all sexless. At least on the surface. But beneath the corsets, my how those bosoms heaved with passion!
Edith Wharton certainly knew how to capture all that restrained eroticism. Kate Chopin (in The Awakening) founded a literary reputation with her tale of unbridled sexuality. And now, nearly a century later, Anita Shreve (author of The Pilot’s Wife) tries to follow in their buttoned-up bootsteps.
She fails miserably.
Fortune’s Rocks has all the appearance of a Wharton wannabe with scenes of oh-so-proper dinner parties, an independent-spirited heroine and a foul set of circumstances that would do Charles Dickens proud. What Shreve doesn’t realize is that there is no longer a market for this type of narrative. One of the reasons I find Wharton so engaging is because I knew she was trying to write her way out of the very culture she was describing. Novels like The Age of Innocence and Summer are good precisely because they are like time capsules of early 19th-century New York with all of its stiff, upper-class prejudices. Not to mention the fact that Wharton’s prose has a depth that resonates off the page.
By comparison, Shreve is splashing around in the shallow end of the wading pool.
To be fair, Shreve does show she’s done a lot of research into the manners and customs of the era. Her descriptions of dinner parties and afternoon teas and sensuous strolls along the beach are complete to the nth degree. They’re also very dull.
Fortune’s Rocks starts on what seems to be a promising first sentence:
"In the time it takes for her to walk from the bathhouse at the seawall of Fortune’s Rocks, where she has left her boots and has discreetly pulled off her stockings, to the waterline along which the sea continually licks the pink and silver sand, she learns about desire. Desire that slows the breath, that causes a preoccupied pause in the midst of uttering a sentence, that focuses the gaze absolutely on the progress of naked feet walking toward the water."
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Olympia Biddeford. She’s fifteen years old and, as she walks along the New Hampshire beach, "she has passed from being a girl, with a child’s pent-up and nearly frenzied need to sweep away the rooms and cobwebs of her winter, to being a woman."
Now, if you’ve enjoyed those two brief passages I’ve quoted, then I suggest you stop reading right now and go buy yourself a copy of this bodice-ripper. If, however, those cucumber sandwiches you ate at the ladies’ society tea are starting to rise in your gorge, then you’ll know what I mean when I say there is nothing to recommend this book.
The story, which at times reads like a feminized Lolita, tells how Olympia discovers her womanhood (at fifteen!) by seducing a married man twenty-six years her senior. The resulting adulterous scandal brings plenty of misfortune to those who live at Fortune’s Rocks, the seaside resort where Olympia lives. The rest of the novel is too maudlin for words. Suffice to say, there’s plenty of back-of-the-hand-to-the-forehead scenes and long stretches of stilted dialogue. For good measure—just to wake us from our torpor, I suppose—Shreve throws in a couple of grittily-detailed childbirth scenes which read like a cross between ER and a midwife’s handbook.
The whole book is written in a faux Victorian prose style, making the already unbearable unreadable.