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The Weight of Water ()

Westchester Women's Book Club

On the night of March 5, 1873, two Norwegian immigrant women were ax murdered on Smuttynose Island in the Isles of Shoals, 10 miles off the coast of Portsmouth, NH.  A third woman, sister of one victim and sister-in-law of the other, hid out in a cave overnight and survived.  Louis Wagner, an itinerant worker, was tried and executed for the murders.

Now, in 1995, Jean has received a commission from a magazine to do a photo essay about Smuttynose and the murders, which have generated renewed interest in light of the OJ Simpson case.  She and her husband, the poet Thomas Janes, and their daughter join Richard, who is Thomas' brother, and his girlfriend, Adaline, on board Richard's boat and sail over to Smuttynose to investigate.  Jean obtains a journal that was kept by the survivor of the attack and it's pages reveal a tale of jealousy and obsession which Jean finds paralleling her own life when she begins to notice weird affinities between Thomas and Adaline.

The novel unfolds on two tracks as Maren Hontvedt's journal entries are interwoven with Jean's increasingly bitter narration about her deteriorating marriage.  The two tracks finally converge in scenes of violent death separated by over a century.

Shreve uses these entwined tales to ruminate on the nature of lost love and crimes of passion and jealousy and rage and so on.  But it seemed to me that in the end she lost her nerve.  She tiptoes right up to the edge and then backs away.  As she says, "We think that a crime of passion has a morality all it's own."  But when it comes time for Jean to adopt that morality, Shreve shies away.

As the novel unfolds, Jean begins to push moral boundaries--she steals the journal, she reveals her husband's darkest secret, she makes a pass at Richard, etc.  But when the climax comes, a climax that we see coming from the first page of the novel if not from the dust jacket, Jean does not act out the jealous rage that's been building.  What then are we to make of the entire novel we've just read.  In an astounding epilogue, we find out that the jealousy wasn't even warranted?  So the jealous rage is robbed of even the cloak of honesty.  Everything, it turns out, was pointless.

I think the book would have been more satisfying, and more honest, if Shreve had followed the course she'd charted.  Let Jean act out her murderous jealous rage and see how we react to it.  Does infidelity and love betrayed justify murder?  Or if it does not, do we at least understand the impulse?  Alas, these questions go unasked in the wake of the too trite conclusion to the novel. But it seems to me that everything from the narrative structure of the novel to the increasing emotional torque that she applies, indicates that Ms Shreve thinks, and I would agree, that it is understandable, and perhaps justifiable, that marital infidelity leads to a kind of killing rage. It's too bad that she bails out on the logic of her own story.

The other problem I had with the book is that Jean's husband is just such a prick, that I for one, was actually praying that she'd take an ax to him.  If you're going to contemplate lost love, it's helpful to give readers the impression that love existed at some point.  Instead Thomas is so self-absorbed that we never feel that he loved Jean, nor she him.

In the end, I found the book to be a flawed but worthwhile read.  Shreve keeps it short, which is good since we know where the story is inevitably headed, and keeps the tension building in both story lines.  I especially liked the background that she provides on Smuttynose, which I previously only knew of as a name for a local beer. (I encourage you to visit the excellent Website below on the original murders.) There is much in this book to like, though it ends up being something of a disappointment.

Amy Reilly responds:

 I finished the book and somehow the end was a letdown.  I couldn't
 figure out why, but you pretty much nailed it in your review. The tension
 builds and builds, and then you get almost nothing on the 1990s accident
 itself. You figure that Billie's death was shattering, but it's so
 underdone (even the accident scene itself is so underdone) that it loses
 its punch, somehow.  There is no development of that other than the drink
 Jean has with Adaline a year later...not enough to sustain, or live up to,
 the first half of the book. Somehow Maren's story was developed much more
 fully than Jean's, I felt.

 I also had trouble with Shreve's detached style.  Somehow with the
 switching back and forth between the stories -- which I liked when she did
 it by chapter, but not when she did it by paragraph -- seemed artificial to
 me. It's as if the author is saying "arent' I clever" rather than "forget
 about me and listen to my story." I have a particular sore spot for authors
 who call attention to themselves while writing, and I think Shreve falls
 into this occasionally.  You get the feeling that they are interested in
 Writing as Art with a capital A , rather than writing as storytelling. One
 should be able to completely forget about the author when reading his or
 her story, in my mind.  But some authors can't keep their egos out of the
 way (like Rushdie, in a sense.)

 You felt that Thomas was a prick -- I agree, but Jean was no prize either.
 She whined, she was paranoid, she was passively critical of everyone else.
 Thomas was an alcoholic when she married him so what exactly did she
 expect? Actually I didn't care much for any of the characters except for
 the kid. I wouldn't want to sit down and have a beer with any of the grown
 ups. What a self-absorbed bunch!

 I read THE PILOT'S WIFE, the book Shreve wrote after this one (and current
 Oprah selection) and liked it better (although others I know who've read
 both feel the opposite.) I didn't dislike The Weight of Water, but like
 you, I felt it was flawed.


Grade: (C+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Readers Guide (Little Brown)
    -Review from New York Times (Susan Kenney)
    -Smuttynose Murders 1873