Fortune’s Rocks by Anita Shreve

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!

55 comments

  1. I too was a bit sniffy about the likes of Shreve, but also Jodie Picoult and Joanna Trollope etc, but once I got over that I have found them to be very enjoyable writers. Their books are never less than readable, and they tackle moral issues that make great stories. They may tend to be middlebrow and middle class, but there’s nothing middling about the reading.

    1. I am still sniffy about Picoult and Trollope but now I have crossed the divide I might be more tempted to pick them up now! It has made me reassess why I think certain books are worthy of reading and others not – Dorothy Whipple is one of my great loves and yet she was probably a Shreve type author in her day.

  2. Wow, great review! I am like you- have never really given Shreve much thought one way or the other. I’m glad she’s worth the effort! Maybe…

    1. Thank you! Definitely worth the effort – if you’re ever stuck for a book at the airport, she’ll get you through the plane ride, that’s for sure!

  3. I have the same impression about Shreve as you previously did! Don’t know if I’ll read one anytime soon though, but at least you made me think about giving her a shot in the futuuuure..😀

  4. Great review. It just goes to show that we can’t judge a book by its cover… or its author, at times! I’ll add this to my TBR list for sure after reading this. Thanks!

    1. Well exactly! I wouldn’t say I am converted from my book snob ways just yet but I’m definitely more willing to give other authors of this ilk a try from now on! I hope you manage to read it soon and that you enjoy it as much as me!

  5. I started reading Anita Shreve with this very book, and I picked it up to see why she was popular rather than because I thought it would be a great book. I found out that she is definitely a quality mainstream writer and I’ve enjoyed forays forwards and backwards in her list since. I should warn you though that I have been less taken with her last couple of books.

    1. I think quality mainstream is exactly the words to describe Anita Shreve! I have heard she is a bit patchy – thanks for the warning! I want to try The Pilot’s Wife next – I read the back of it when I picked up Fortune’s Rocks and it sounded really good.

  6. How interesting! Of course I’ve heard of this book and seen it around but I think I avoided it for the same reasons you did. I mean you do see her books everywhere, airport bookstores and mainstream shops. I’ll definitely give it a second look if I pass by it again.

    1. As soon as I see a book everywhere, I don’t want to know! I am terrible! But I do think she is worth a go, if you are in the mood for something a bit lighter weight, and with a good plot. I definitely didn’t feel like I was reading fluffy trash which is what I thought I would find when I opened Fortune’s Rocks up!

  7. I would never had read her either but a few years ago I broke both of my elbows and was laid up. The pain and stress made me want something lighter than my usual fare so I read Shreve and Picoult and while I still think they belong in that ‘lighter fare’ category I agree that Shreve has a lovely writing style, she paints a mental image so wonderfully, and creates people and situations that pull you in. Forture’s Rocks made me so angry at turns I’d put the book down and say I was done. I had to pick it up again, I had to know what happened. Of course it was all tide up nicely but I was still satisfied with the ending.

    1. Both elbows?! Goodness me! You poor thing! Yes – Shreve paints a wonderful picture and the ending was good – open enough to leave you wondering but still closed enough to make you feel satisfied. I look forward to reading more of her books though it will take a bigger leap for me to pick up a Picoult!

  8. I find present tense really disconcerting. You were able to enjoy it and get into it despite that? The story, era, and characters all sound great and I was ready to get a copy until you said it was written in present tense. I’ll see if I can get over that and give it a chance.

    1. I know, me too Traci – but – honestly, after the first couple of pages, it becomes totally normal and it works for this story. You won’t even notice. I think you would LOVE it – it’s historical, it’s got a feisty heroine and a great plot. If I hadn’t already given my copy away I’d have sent it to you!

  9. Like you, I’d turned my nose up at Shreve previously and was surprised by how much I enjoyed Fortune’s Rocks when I finally read it one summer. Unfortunately, when I tried several other Shreve novels I was never able to make it past the first few chapters/pages.

    1. I’m glad you really liked the book too! Yes I have read and heard now that Shreve’s books aren’t all as good as Fortune’s Rocks so I am going to have to be cautious if I carry on reading her in future!

  10. This sounds really good and I have to say that this must be one of the best things about a book club – reading something that you wouldn’t nromally consider and loving it!

    1. So true – I know I would never ever ever have read this unless I was stuck somewhere without a book and this was the only thing on offer, so I’m glad book club forced me to tackle my prejudices and give it a go!

  11. I got over my reservations about Piccoult (like some of the people who commented above) but never made the jump to Shreve. Looking at Fiona Robyn’s books (similar cover style, anticipate a similar kind of feel and story) with anticipation has made me reconsider my ideas about Shreve and now your review really makes me want to read her books.

    1. If you’ll read Picoult, Shreve will be a step up, I promise! Shreve is a very good writer and I have nothing but praise for her. Please do try her out!

  12. So glad you enjoyed this, Rachel! It been quite some time since I’ve read Shreve (her books are usually hit or miss for me), but this one is my favorite. I have Testimony in the tbr pile… thinking it might be a good vacation or plane book.

    1. Thanks JoAnn! I’m glad you loved it too when you read it. Testimony? I haven’t heard of that one. I am thinking of trying The Pilot’s Wife next, or The Weight of Water…when the TBR pile is reduced somewhat though, of course!

  13. Don’t you love when that happens with a book! Quite often I have to restrain myself from taking a customer by the hand and leading them back into the stacks to ‘try again’ when they plop several light reads on the counter. I guess they don’t always have it wrong!

    As I was reading your post I wondered if you would entertain the idea of another Shreve and you answered that one. Book clubs are wonderful for dragging people kicking and screaming towards books we never would have read otherwise. And can’t you just hear the gulls in that inviting photo!? Fun post, Rachel!

    1. Yes I do! I have so enjoyed having my horizons widened! Oh Darlene, you are so funny – I can imagine you steering customers over to the classics or to some Persephone books and saying ‘now here’s something worth reading’!

      I am definitely going to try Shreve again – I think she’d be great for a holiday read to share with my mum so we don’t have to pack as many books! Glad you like the photo – it was the most beautiful place to stay and I’d love to go back one day.

  14. The Pilot’s Wife didn’t do much for me, but someone gave me Fortune’s Rocks, so it sits in my TBR pile. Based on your strong review, perhaps I’ll give it a peek this weekend.

    At this risk of sounding priggish, I wonder if a book set in contemporary times could carry off the passionate love affair between a middle-aged man (husband and father) and a 15-year-old girl. Perhaps setting it in the past (even while writing in the present tense) gives the reader some distance from the subject matter.

    1. Oh really? I was going to read that one next! I’ll advance with caution now! Do give it a peek – I hope you like it!

      Yes, I think it would maybe be a bit Lolita now. Though the interesting thing about their affair is that Olympia is the one pushing for it – she knows what she’s doing and she’s very mature for her age. I’m not sure whether that would translate as well to a modern audience – somehow involving corsets makes it more romantic and understandable!

  15. Hi folks… great review as always.

    I have yet to read this Shreve novel but I have read two of her previous.

    Has anyone else read The Weight of Water? It’s one of those books that has stuck with me, not because it was particularly brilliant/unusual, it just has. I’d be really interested to see if anyone else felt the same?

    1. Thanks Cate! I have heard The Weight of Water is very good and there is a film of it too, if you’re interested, though it has Elizabeth Hurley in it, which is never a good sign unless you’re Austin Powers.

  16. This is my absolute favorite book by this author so I’m glad you gave AS a chance. I’ve read a handful of others, some better, some worse, but this is one I’d love to reread.

    1. Oh I’m so pleased you’re another fan! Thanks for coming by my blog as well!

      I am definitely going to dabble some more in the Shreve waters and see what else takes my fancy.

  17. The only Anita Shreves I’ve read were for book club, and I’ve found them uneven. I liked Light on Snow quite a lot and thoroughly disliked Wedding in December. The others that I’ve read (All He Ever Wanted and The Pilot’s Wife) had elements I really liked but didn’t quite come together for me. I had mixed enough success with Shreve that I haven’t read any more, but I can see the appeal–when she’s good, she’s definitely worth reading.

    1. Oh dear! I suppose when someone is fairly prolific you can’t help but have some books that are more or less successful than others. It sounds like I need to be careful when I choose another of her books. I did really enjoy Fortune’s Rocks but as Shreve isn’t normally my type of author and I don’t have more of her books on the TBR pile I probably won’t be reading it again.

  18. Ooh what a wonderful review. Like your good self I have always had certain assumptions about Shreve’s work and this review has made me want to give her a whirl almost instantly. I know which author I will be tracking down at the library when I next go!

    1. I’m glad you liked it Simon! I’m glad you’re going to have a look for her down at the library – I’d be interested to hear how you get on!

  19. Interesting. So this is a Maine Novel, and I’m trying to read those lately: my list includes Empire Falls, Olive Kitteridge, a couple of Sarah Orne Jewett books, and I’m waiting for HB Stowe’s Pearl of Orr’s Island to arrive. The Wife powered through Shreve at some point, so we have a large stack of her books around here. I never thought to read one before, but now I have a good reason. Will go upstairs and pull it out right now, though I’m not sure when I’ll get to it. Great review. I’m very curious to compare it to Olive Kitteridge.

    1. Thanks for coming by! I’d love to read some more novels about New England – it’s such a beautiful place, and I have only seen a tiny part of it, so books set there are my only ways to experience it! I hope your wife still has some Shreve hanging about and that you enjoy her when you have a chance to give her a go! Olive Kitteridge is a book I have my eye on and hope to get it from the library soon – I’m even more keen if it’s set in Maine!

  20. It looks like I’m one in a long line of readers who turned up their noses at Anita Shreve. She’s always in the pastel and pretty-pretty books near the Oprah book selections, so I generally steer clear of that section. Your review is making me reconsider.

    It’s also absolutely lovely to hear what you thought of Cape Cod. I hope you can make it to Maine some day. I have a great aunt who lives on one of the islands nearby, and the coast of Maine is one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever been to.

    1. Exactly – she’s very much TV book club material in my eyes and I try and steer clear of such authors usually! But Anita did surprise me so she might surprise you too!

      I just adored Cape Cod – it was absolutely beautiful, and one of the most relaxed and friendly places I’ve visited. The beach at Provincetown was gorgeous as well – so empty and bleached looking. I’d love to visit Maine – it looks so beautiful in photos and there’s so many lovely little towns along the coastline – one day!

  21. I STILL haven’t read either of the Anitas… (Brookner/Shreve) but intend to. I must admit I feel a bit sniffy about Shreve, but have heard good things from several people now…

    1. You must get around to it, Simon! Anita Shreve is not your average candy floss author – it is substantial stuff and has certainly left me wanting more!

  22. It’s always nice to be suprised by a book isn’t it?! I read this quite a few years ago but still remember how much I loved it. The writing was amazing I thought and I remember being suprised in a good way by how liberal the characters were.

    Glad you enjoyed it!

    1. Yes! I was so surprised that I liked it as much as I did. I’m glad you loved it too – she is a very good and entertaining author and she’s not helped by her chick lit reputation!

  23. I really like Anita Shreve. I’ve never really considered her chick lit, but then again she’s probably not exactly highbrow lit either. But she is certainly somewhere in the middle and is very good at what she does. This is one I’ve not yet read but I do have it on my TBR pile. I think I must pull it out–you make it sound great.

    1. Yes – she straddles that middle ground perfectly and does an admirable job. Whenever I want an escape from it all read, I know where to go from now on. I need to build a guilty stash of such books!

  24. I’m of a similar opinion re Shreve, Picoult etc – not high-brow literature but very pleasant reads with a bit of food for thought.

    This one I had real trouble with (unlike Pilot’s Wife and Wedding in December) – I found the whole affair farily dull and samey (this could be my huge bug-bear about infidelity raising his ugly head though). On the other hand, I loved the second half, once Olympia grows up a bit and develops a bit of feistiness!

    Anyway, glad to see that you have discovered Shreve!

    1. Hi again Yvann! I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it as much as I did. Morally I didn’t like the story but Anita Shreve managed to sweep me away anyway and it was a good easy read at what was a bit of a stressful time. I do need to dip into her other books -they are light without being vacuous and I think that’s difficult to find these days!

  25. Great review. I am a bit of a book snob as well, and when a friend tried to lend me this book I had to restrain myself from rolling my eyes at her. But what a surprise it was! Once I started it I too could not put it down. I was enchanted. And it really hit home, being that my partner is much much older than I am, and I lost most of my friends and family over our relationship.

    Since then I went out and bought “A Wedding in December”, “Where or When”, and “The Last Time They Met” — all of which, by the way, were great reads, if a bit overly sentimental.

  26. I cannot wait to read this book. I lived on Fortune’s Rock for a short time and hope to one day move back. I return as often as I can. There is a bird sanctuary on Fortune’s Rocks that I consider the most beautiful places in the world. It does not matter where I go, this is the most special place for me. I highly recommend visiting Fortune’s Rocks. You will not be disappointed!

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