Little, Brown, £12.99 stg
The latest novel from best-selling writer Anita Shreve is set in New Hampshire in 1929 – the year of the Wall Street Crash and the beginning of the great depression. Although it is the third volume in a trilogy, of which the first two books are 'The Pilot's Wife' and 'Fortune's Rocks', the novel also reads well as an independent book.
The story is told through the eyes of six key characters; Honora, Sexton, Vivian, McDermott, Alphonse and Alice Willard. The themes of love, loss, betrayal and greed are explored in depth, as each character gets a chance to prove their worth. Their stories and lives, while separate at first, are entwined forever by the events that take place around the beach house and the strike in the local mill.
Honora Willard is the main protagonist who, when we first meet her, is a young, naive bride who works in the local bank. When she meets Sexton Beecher, the man who is to become her husband, their courtship is brief and uneventful. They move to Fortune's Rocks, a small town by the sea. Their new home is a dilapidated beach house, but they live there rent free in return for restoring the house to its former glory.
Sexton is a young successful typewriter salesman who loves the open road. From the moment we meet him we are cautioned that there is something not quite right. Along with Honora we discover that Sexton is every inch the salesman who bends the truth to suit each particular situation. He goes too far when he borrows money from a local bank to get the down payment for his mortgage at another bank. This deed causes him to be fired from his job at the worst possible time. Wall Street has crashed, America is pitted into the worst depression in its history and everyone is struggling to survive.
Vivian is a larger than life character who leaps from the pages as she describes life for the rich in the decadent early twenties. She has come to the beach for the season and meets an old friend who gradually becomes her lover. Their story is bold as they live life at a fast pace. When he is suddenly ruined by the stock market crash Vivian buys his house from him to save face.
The three remaining narrators are Alphonse, McDermott and Alice Willard. Eleven-year-old Alphonse, is old before his time as he struggles to help his mother feed their family. A clever boy who makes the best out of every situation, he eventually gets a job with the union but will have to pay the ultimate price for this privilege. McDermott is almost deaf at the tender age of twenty from years of working in the mill. He tells us about his life and the life of those around him, describing the hardship, pain and kindness of ordinary people as he searches for something more from life. Alice Willard, Honora's mother, communicates with her daughter through letters. The Willard family have struggled through hard times and the tragedy of untimely death and it is through these letters that we get a sense of what Honora's life was like before she moved away.
Gradually the Beecher house becomes the center of the novel. As Honora's collection of sea glass grows so does her set of friends and acquaintances. Sexton, desperate to find work, takes a job at the local mill and soon gets involved with the union organisers and allows them to use the beach house as their headquarters. The strike escalates and Sexton's dishonesty manifests itself in many ways, ultimately destroying his family, friends and colleagues.
Shreve writes with honesty and tenderness as she tries to understand what life was like during one of the worst periods in American history and 'Sea Glass' is an enjoyable read which keeps the reader guessing right up until the last page.