Anita Shreve's most recent novel, THE LAST TIME THEY MET, explores the mysteries of love, grief, and longing with impressive clarity. It's brilliantly plotted, intelligently written --- truly remarkable. The story begins, so it seems, at the end, when star-crossed lovers Thomas and Linda meet, after 26 years apart, at a writer's conference. Linda is a minor poet, recently widowed, the mother of two children. Thomas is a renowned poet who has been in seclusion since the untimely drowning of his young daughter. But the renewed attraction here is not the stuff of a Harlequin romance. Shreve makes it clear that the past shared by Thomas and Linda is profoundly complex. We learn, slowly, that there was a significant, violent accident and a chance meeting in Africa. Past tragedy aside, this section of the novel closes with hope and optimism. The pair leave each other at the airport with promises of phone calls and a relationship rekindled. The final image is one Linda's plane emerging "from the mist to a universe of blue sky and mountainous cloud." It doesn't get more promising than that.
At this point, it's hard not to be rooting for Thomas and Linda. But lingering questions remain: What was it that pried these two people, so clearly destined to be together, apart? Is it related to Africa? To the accident? In the next section, rather than unravel the mystery, Shreve tangles things up even more. Thomas is in Africa, married to Regina, a woman who, while not entirely detestable, is no match for the warm and intelligent Linda whom Shreve describes in the first part of the book. It seems unbelievable and surprising that Thomas would be with this Regina and not Linda. Then, suddenly and strangely, Thomas's Linda does appear --- bent over some pineapples at an outdoor market. I half expected to have everything tied up in the course of this encounter --- at the very least, it seemed likely that the two would talk about why they were initially separated. But, Shreve leaves us wondering, because while there are hints (details of that mysterious accident surface again) there is no real explanation of what happened to separate these two lovers. On the other hand, there is a palpable, obvious attraction and utter joy emanating from both Linda and Thomas. Not surprisingly, they embark on an affair. This is a sexy chapter loaded with sexy details --- clandestine meetings on jasmine-petal-covered beds, a coat-closet rendezvous, and secret letters hidden in piles of poems. Shreve magically places the reader in Thomas and Linda's world of longing, anticipation, and regret. Her attention to detail is remarkable.
Where there was extraordinary hope at the end of the novel's first section, this second section ends with complete despair and hopelessness. Thomas and Linda, both married, agree that they need to end their affair. This seems believable and utterly heartbreaking. For while Linda and Thomas both love their spouses, they readily admit that their love for one another is greater. Yet they indeed separate once again, and Thomas walks away from their final meeting thinking, "this would be the worst he'd ever know; nothing would ever hurt this much again."
Oh, but things get so much sadder, so much darker in the final section. I won't talk too much about it here because it is so critical to the goings on of the whole novel. I will say that this last section is the best of the three. The dialogue is the most natural and smart, the details the most realistic.
And when the final page arrives, and Shreve explains away the mystery of Thomas and Linda in one crisp, perfect page, you'll be satisfied and maddened and horrified all at once. It's that good. Shreve masterfully plumbs the depths of loss and longing and love and the fictions we all keep in our heads that both save us and doom us as we go about the business of our lives.
Reviewed by Rachel A. S. Kempster on January 22, 2002
The Last Time They Met: A Novel