Anita Shreve is uniquely interested in the events that change our lives irrevocably—chance meetings, sudden tragedies, secrets revealed—and her plots are driven by the way her characters respond to resulting emotional and circumstantial shifts.
Such events can inspire her characters to succeed, as in the case of Thomas Janes in The Weight of Water, when he writes his renowned The Magdalene Poems after the tragic death of his lover. Alternatively, they may set them on a path of self-destruction, as evidenced by Sexton Beecher’s response to the stock market crash of 1929 in Sea Glass.
While the moment of crisis is tragic for Sexton Beecher, it shows his wife Honora that she can be an ingenious earner as well as a fighter for a new cause. When Kathryn Lyons’ husband dies in a crash, she is forced to reexamine her life and her marriage, learning things she never could have imagined about herself and her husband. These characters are able to find new loves and new lives in the ashes of their destroyed existences. A critical event may also affect a group of characters. The tragedy that occurred right before the characters in A Wedding in December graduated from high school informed all of their lives in specific and telling ways. It is the thing that binds them together, but also drives them apart. Margaret’s life is changed forever when she is frightened by rats while climbing Mt. Kenya and takes the hand of her climbing companion, Arthur.
In Testimony, a night of teenage debauchery caught on tape turns into the moment that changes everyone at the school’s lives forever, including the headmaster, the students involved, their parents and their friends.
For some, like Honora, the moment of crisis sends life in a new, exciting direction or, alternately, as in
In Testimony, to a place of emotional ruin. As readers, looking in from the outside, this moment of crisis can seem obvious. But these moments—of tragedy, of decision, of commitment—are universal to us all, and we’re often only aware of them in hindsight. It is how we handle them that makes us stronger. Think of adversities you have faced. How did you cope and might you revise your actions in retrospect?