Monday, August 10, 2009
Sea Glass, a novel set on the New Hampshire coast in the early days of the Depression, introduces several very different characters, all from different social classes, who come together under extraordinary circumstances. Honora Beecher is a young and naive woman, swept off her feet and quickly married to the secretive and charismatic Sexton. Sexton and Honora have recently pooled all their resources to buy an abandoned house on the coast, where they hope to share their lives. Sexton, a traveling office machine salesman, soon gets himself in over his head with some financial trickery and ultimately gets fired from his job. During this tough economic time, his only choice is to begin working at the mill, a job that feeds off the very souls of its workers. Vivian is a debutante with too much money and too much time on her hands. Running and hiding from her usual set after an unspecified difficulty, she finds herself on the New Hampshire coast with her close friend Dickie. Dickie has recently begun renovation on a house that he wishes to share with Vivian, but the stock market crash changes all that. Soon, Dickie has fled the scene in disgrace and Vivian is in sole possession of the big house. Whiling away her days alone, Vivian longs to make a change in her life, to find direction and meaning in the turbulent times. McDermott is a young mill worker. As he toils away repairing the machines that have robbed him of most of his hearing, he comes across some troubling news about the mill. Management is planning on cutting wages, increasing production, and lengthening hours; and McDermott has had enough. Quietly he becomes involved in a workers strike that will pull in the likes of Honora, Vivian, and Sexton. As these unlikely accomplices come together, they will discover new sides of themselves and new opportunities that had never before seemed possible. Unexpected loyalties will form, relationships will be tested, and lives will be forever changed by the events that they all become complicit in.
After reading so much praise for Anita Shreve's novels, I was surprised to find that this book fell so flat for me. I think the crux of the problem was that every aspect of the book was very subdued and, frankly, dull. I found all of the characters to be thinly formed and to have little to no tension or spark of life within them. They all seemed very drab and curiously passionless. Because of this, I never really felt any emotion for any of them. I didn't really care who was falling in love with who, or who was dealing with financial upsets or, well, anything that was going on with them. And it seemed like they didn't care either. The characters lacked the solidity that was necessary for me to engage with them, and as a result, the story was thin and unremarkable. There was very little emotional examination in these people; they just seemed to trudge along and let things happen to them without taking any kind of emotional stock of themselves or those around them; and when they did exhibit the perfunctory emotion expected of them, it didn't feel genuine or heartfelt. They just didn't feel very real or convincing and I found that to be especially frustrating. It made me want to hold them all at an arms length instead of investing any care or concern in them.
I also didn't find the plot to be all that interesting. Mostly it dealt with the striking workforce of the mill and the clandestine operations of the people organizing the strikes. There were other aspects of the plot, like the floundering intimacy between Sexton and Honora, the unlikely friendship between McDermott and a young boy who also worked in the mill, and a secret and ill-planned romance. However, all this paled in comparison to the emphasis that was placed on the strike at the mill, which portrayed the harsh conditions and unfairness of factory life and provided the backdrop for the melding of the characters, who were all of differing social classes. One could argue that the love story was meant to take center stage, but it was not developed or nuanced enough to take the reigns and move forward as the main plot element. I felt the plot to be a bit heavy-handed and not very engaging, and although it was very easy to read (which I am not sure is a compliment), I found that anything and everything distracted me from the story in front of me.
Here I must add that I did enjoy reading the letters that Honora's mother wrote to her detailing daily life that was strictured by depression era economies, but those were few and far between. I would have been more pleased to have read more in this vein, as it did tend to give the story some much needed atmosphere and historical resonance. Towards the end there was a shift in the storyline, and finally some action, but it was a brief plot sequence. Unfortunately, I had made up my mind about the book by that point and I was not swayed by the plot twist.
The conclusion was fully as disappointing as most of the book had been, with most of the characters finding new depths of misery in which to wallow. Perhaps an alternate and more satisfying ending would have made me a bit more charitable in my feelings towards this book, but I don't really think so. I can understand that some books are meant to be quiet and subtle, but in this situation, I think the book definitely suffered from the lack of tangible feeling and emotional depth and range. Maybe this is a particular writing trait of the author, or maybe it was unique to this book, but I didn't find it to be a very compelling or engrossing read.
Though I didn't particularly like this book, I have heard really good things about The Pilot's Wife, one of her other novels. Honestly, I wished I had read that one instead. This book was the second selection of our book club, and surprisingly, I was in the minority in my opinion of it. Most of the others in the group felt very strongly about the characters and their plights, and Sexton in particular was unanimously hated and vilified. Others thought that Honora was a very boring character in the first half of the book but that she later became more interesting. The conclusion seemed to be disliked by all that were present, but overall they agreed that this was an entertaining read. For my part, I don't feel that I can honestly recommend this book, as I feel that the sparseness of both the plot and characters detracted heavily from my enjoyment of it.