“If you push a woman to the edge, how will she behave?” Jean Janes wonders this in The Weight of Water, reflecting on the unsolved 1873 murder of two women on a small island off the New Hampshire coast. Anita Shreve has examined the lives of women in different eras, social and economic class, and age. But no matter their circumstance, Shreve’s female characters are often pushed to the edge. How much tragedy or heartbreak can a woman stand? Is she dramatically changed in a moment or slowly pushed to a breaking point over time?
Shreve writes consistently about women who have been pushed to the edge in one way or another. Honora Beecher in Sea Glass must fight for survival after her husband loses all their money in the stock market. Eden in Eden Close witnesses the murder of her adopted father. Sydney Sklar in Body Surfing has had her heart broken twice. Before her 30th birthday, she has already been once divorced and once widowed. After a traumatic event, a woman will often find a reserve of previously untapped strength.
Sometimes, however, a woman discovers her limits—and her strength—after years and years of sacrifice. Etna Bliss feels her soul slowly begin to erode when she marries a man she does not love in All He Ever Wanted. Nora Laski, who owns the inn where A Wedding in December is set, knew for years of her husband’s indiscretions but deals with them in a way that would be impossible for a woman of less fortitude, less sense of purpose.
In Testimony, Anna Quinney betrays her husband in a moment of passion just prior to the death of her son. This leads her to immense pain and almost to a loss of language. In A Change In Altitude, Margaret is tortured by the fact that an act so small—of taking a man’s hand—could lead to a death and to the alienation of her husband. Guilt about that moment drives her into the arms of another man and even threatens her life.
Once a woman has been pushed to the point of no return, what is the result? What are the many ways women—and their resilience—are tested? How are their reactions different from those of the men in their lives?