Fortune’s Rocks is this month’s pick for the V&A Book Club which meets next week. I must admit my Book Snob tendencies came out with full force when I heard what we’d be reading for March; I’ve always considered Anita Shreve to be a beach read sort of writer – slightly more highbrow chick lit, if you will, and I’d never in a million years choose to read one of her books ordinarily. So I wrinkled up my nose and had a bit of a moan about it, but I am committed to my Book Group, and respect other people’s choices as they have respected mine, so I obediently found a copy and started reading.
Well. What a surprise this was. I don’t like having to admit I’m wrong when it comes to literary prejudices, so I hate having to say this, but I thought Fortune’s Rocks was absolutely brilliant. I haven’t been so engrossed in a novel, where I thought about the characters all day at my desk, and couldn’t wait to get on the train after work to read it again, in a good while. This is addictive stuff, let me tell you!
The story is set in turn of the century New England, in an upscale summer seaside resort, Fortune’s Rocks. The story opens when Olympia Biddeford and her family arrive at their cottage to spend the summer outside of the city. Olympia is 15, and an attractive and highly intelligent girl, sheltered and properly brought up by her wealthy Brahmin parents. She has an inner rebellious streak, however, and is determined not to end up like her self proclaimed ‘invalid’ mother, who spends her days closeted in her beautiful rooms, her nerves and weak constitution not permitting her to spend too much time in society. The first time we meet Olympia, she is naughtily paddling in the sea at the men’s bathing hour, when she shouldn’t really be on the beach, especially not without a hat and stockings. It is when she is paddling that she notices the admiring looks she is receiving from the watching male bathers, and in that moment, she understands that she has become a woman, and an object of desire, in their eyes, for the very first time. This new self realisation of her sexual nature will prove to make this summer the pivotal experience of her life.
Olympia’s father invites his friend, a celebrated essayist and humanitarian doctor, John Haskell, his wife Catherine, and their four children to their home on Fortune’s Rocks soon after they arrive for the summer. Haskell is building a cottage down the road that will be completed in six weeks, and he is working nearby in a clinic within the poor millworker community. As soon as Olympia and Haskell meet, something passes between them, and their eyes lock in a lingering glance that neither wants to break. Olympia, in her naiveity, is initially confused as to why she feels so strangely drawn to this man who is old enough to be her father, but soon they have both acknowledged their admiration for each other, and when Catherine and the children leave to spend some time at her mother’s house, leaving John alone at his hotel, he and Olympia embark on a passionate, all consuming affair.
Olympia and John’s love is based on instinct, on the heart, rather than the head; they are irresistibly drawn to one another, and despite their best efforts to resist temptation, despite the knowledge that they could be ruining Haskell’s wife and children’s lives forever, not to mention Olympia’s future, and her parents’ good name, they can’t stop themselves from being together. They know from the outset that they will only have six weeks in which to have this secret affair; Catherine and the children will be back permanently once their cottage has been built, but still, for them, it is worth it. This sense of secrecy and urgency intensifies their affair, making their time together blissful but also poignant, and the impending separation they know must happen is constantly hanging over them. What they do not bargain for, however, is discovery, and when they are found out, on the night of Olympia’s 16th birthday party, the lives they both led before they met are ripped apart forever, and nothing will ever be the same again.
Though their affair lasts just six weeks, the repercussions of their actions have devastating consequences that ruin both of their futures. Catherine leaves Haskell, who never sees his children again, and Olympia is kept under house arrest in Boston, having devastated her parents and ruined their reputation in society. It soon becomes clear that Olympia is pregnant, but her baby is taken from her as soon as it is born, and she is sent off to a seminary to be taught how to be a governess, the only fit future for a woman sullied as she is. She has no contact with Haskell, who she never stops loving, and cannot forget, which prevents her from even thinking about a future with another man, or having more children of her own. However, three years after the affair was discovered, Olympia finally manages to make a bid for freedom, and she heads back to Fortune’s Rocks to try and carve a future for herself, on her own terms, but it’s not long before the past comes back to haunt her…
This is one of those stories that absolutely sucks you in and immerses you in the world of the characters. This is helped by Shreve’s use of the present tense; initially this was odd but after a while it became normal, and gave the novel a real sense of freshness and immediacy that greatly enhanced the reading experience for me. Olympia and John are both completely believable, and their obsessive love, based on mutual respect and admiration of their beliefs, values and intelligence rather than purely on physical attraction, is compelling and convincing. Their inability to resist each other was selfish, yet honest; they couldn’t deny their hearts, despite the pain they were inflicting on others and themselves in the process. Even though Olympia is young, she knows her own mind and her own strength, and as a heroine, she is a remarkable character who will stay with me for a long time. Fortune’s Rocks is a wonderful, beautifully written book, intensely evocative of the New England coastal landscape, and of the complex and sometimes incomprehensible nature of the heart. I loved it, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone who appreciates good characterisation and a page turning plot. I stand corrected; Anita Shreve is not the author I thought she was, and I can’t wait to read more of her books. I am also now desperate to return to New England; I spent a blissful summer in Provincetown (pic of the view from my B&B window below), at the tip of Cape Cod, a few years ago, and this book has reminded me of the beauty of this wonderful coastline. Fortune’s Rocks is actually a beach in the town of Biddeford, Maine; maybe one day I’ll take a trip!