When Sydney becomes a live-in tutor for teenager Julie Edwards, the New Hampshire beach house is full. Mr. and Mrs. Edwards have company, and their grown sons --- Jeff and Ben --- visit along with Jeff's elegant girlfriend, Vicki.
Sydney is just beginning to feel alive again after the death of her husband, as well as her divorce from her previous husband. At the Edwards's beach house, she adores friendly Mr. Edwards, but Mrs. Edwards treats her as distantly and formally as if Sydney were a servant. Sydney realizes that Julie is destined to disappoint her mother's unrealistic scholastic ambitions. Julie is intellectually slow, too slow to ever attend the big-name colleges Mrs. Edwards pines for. The beautiful blonde teenager worries Sydney in other ways. Julie attracts the attention of local boys, and then mysteriously vanishes during a dinner party. Could Julie be meeting a man?
Sydney's own situation turns electric with the presence of the two Edwards sons. One of them --- she's sure it's Ben --- gropes her in the ocean as the three body surf at night. She's hyper-aware of Jeff's closeness as he helps her wash dishes and then again when the two of them search for his missing sister.
When Julie returns, drunk and disheveled, Sydney and the brothers keep the evening's secrets from the parents while trying to pry answers from Julie, who cannot or will not tell them what happened to her. Sydney is amazed to learn that Jeff has kept Julie's secret from Vicki.
The relationships within the house are as ornate and complicated as a fine tapestry. Sydney's ease with Mr. Edwards makes her yearn for family, while Mrs. Edwards's coolness pushes her away from theirs. Yet Mrs. Edwards is revealed as a multi-layered personality when Sydney realizes that her relationship with her husband is unexpected and complex. As Sydney begins to feel she has been given a new chance at life, she must navigate the stormy waters of a family torn by conflicts, lending suspense and tension until the startling climax.
Don't be fooled, as I was, halfway through the novel when the author appears to be summing up the lives of the characters. It feels as if the story has been told, and the tension driving the plot has dissipated. That momentary lull, however, is a setup for unexpected twists and turns that kept me on the edge of my seat --- and turning pages all night long.
BODY SURFING shares common themes with other Anita Shreve novels: the main character is tested repeatedly, the Edwards's beach house is the setting for several of her books (with different characters and time periods) and the tone is dark. This latest work has everything a reader could wish for: atmosphere, a sympathetic main character, suspense, longing, desire and unpredictable plot twists.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 11, 2011