"The only problem with looking for sea glass...is that you never look up. You never see the view. You never see the houses or the ocean, because you're afraid you'll miss something in the sand."
As it is with all of us, the characters in SEA GLASS don't see the view --- the vista that history paints in time. If they did, choices would no doubt differ...but therein lies the story. Anita Shreve has a knack for fashioning compelling fiction from historical vistas, and SEA GLASS is no exception. The story evolves over a year's time, beginning several months before the great stock market crash, an event that acts as a character in much the same way as the pieces of sea glass that so beguile Honora.
SEA GLASS, Shreve's ninth novel, centers on Honora Beecher, newly married to Sexton, a traveling typewriter salesman, and three other characters whose lives eventually intersect. It's 1929 and the Beechers are beginning their life together in a dilapidated beachfront house at Fortune's Rocks (a house that dedicated readers will recognize from THE PILOT'S WIFE and FORTUNE'S ROCKS). In true Shreve style, the other characters are quickly introduced but are slowly, albeit inevitably, drawn into the orbit of Honora's life as she falls in love with the rambling old house and the beach on which it resides.
Honora lays claim to sparkling glass fragments of heartening color even as she is buffeted by the disappointment that Sexton is not the man she believed him to be. As the other characters flow into her life, Honora comes into her own as she learns more of the economic and class struggles of the world beyond her sea-swept sands.
SEA GLASS layers history and Depression-era economics with the universality of love, friendship, violence, despair, betrayal, and hope. It's a dissection of a New England coastal community in hard times, and the characters Shreve uses as her scalpel are varied and deep, if not always completely credible. McDermott, a mill worker who's going deaf, is drawn into a struggle for unionization while simultaneously becoming a father figure for Alphonse, an 11-year-old whose income from the mills is essential to the survival of his mother and siblings. Vivian, a wealthy and dissolute socialite who lives down the beach, provides not only capitalistic contrast to the poverty and politicization of the others but occasional welcome comic relief as well.
Anita Shreve brings the New England landscape to life with descriptions of sea glass and the forces of nature that smooth it. Mental pictures form of the rocks covering the sand like "thick fists of gray and brown and black." She's equally adept at describing the brutal beauty of industrialized life in the mill as she compares machinery to music, "this note and then that note and then this note, moving toward a furious crescendo, sounding a particular beat as the music reaches a fever pitch and then warbles down to a simple melody." The characters' physical surroundings are so realistically described, with a fine and unique grace, that it's easy to forgive the convenient redemptive conversion of Vivian and the occasional predictability of the plot.
"[Honora] hesitates over a round starburst in the sand, thinking, despite the season, that it might be a jellyfish. But when she dares to poke it with her finger, she discovers that it is the bottom of a crystal goblet, the stem snapped off at the base, the crystal battered and misshapen, but a treasure nevertheless."
Reviewed by Jami Edwards on January 23, 2011