Thu
Sep 22 2011 10:30am

Rock-Hard Emotion in New Hampshire, the Granite State: Anita Shreve’s Sea Glass

Sea Glass by Anita ShreveWe’re reading our way across America...one romance at a time. And, to make it even more fun, we’re doing it in order of incorporation into the United States.

NEW HAMPSHIRE: Sea Glass by Anita Shreve

***SPOILERS***

Nowadays, lovely New Hampshire is widely renowned for skiing, maple syrup, and being the more conservative yin to neighboring Vermont’s let-it-all-hang-out yang (about which more in a couple of weeks). But in the 1920s—and I actually didn’t know this—New Hampshire was better known as a hub for textile production. (Massachusetts even more so, but we’ve already visited the Bay State.) Enormous mills churned out miles upon miles of cotton, linen, and wool. But the mill workers lived in squalor while the owners persisted in slashing wages while demanding increased production at ridiculous rates of speed, and eventually the workers rebelled…just in time for the Great Depression.

Timing, as they say, is everything.

Anita Shreve’s melancholy Sea Glass is the sad, sad, terribly sad story of one of those rebellions. The book begins in 1929 when newlyweds Honora and Sexton Beecher move into their first home, a decrepit beach house on the New Hampshire coast that they’ve rented from the friend of a friend. Honora doesn’t really know her new husband all that well, but she likes him well enough, and he did ask her to marry him, and anyway that’s what you do, right? And at first, all is well; Sexton is a successful typewriter salesman and business is booming, so when the opportunity arises to buy the beach house with which they’ve both fallen in love, they jump at the chance.

But Sexton, as it turns out, can’t win for losing. First he tells a little white lie on his mortgage application, and his banker—when the lie is discovered—is distinctly unamused. Then he loses his sales job due to worsening economic conditions and is forced to take on a demoralizing, backbreaking job at the local mill, whereupon the millworkers, led by charismatic professional Communist Mironson, promptly go on strike.

One of the leaders of the strike is idealistic young Quillen McDermott, who has been deafened by the noise of the machinery with which he works. As the strike (and some serious assiness on Sexton’s part) begins to tear Sexton and Honora apart, Honora and McDermott (who usually goes by his last name) grow closer together. But the mill owners are determined to break the strike by any means necessary, and a happy ending—for anyone—is by no means a sure thing.

There’s more to the story, although the Honora/McDermott story is its backbone. The best character is Vivian, a bored socialite who finds a sense of purpose through her own involvement in the strike. For a while it looks as though Vivian will find lasting love with her occasional screw buddy Dickie, but after he’s ruined in the Crash he leaves Vivian to move to Ohio and sell shirts. (No, really.) As a favor, though, she does buy his house—it’s right down the beach from the Beechers, and the two develop an unexpected and close friendship that may be Honora’s salvation when the whole Sexton/McDermott/strike thing inevitably blows up.

Shreve is good at setting a mood; we experience, along with Honora, the oppressive fog, the dull roar of the surf, and the occasional brightness of a piece of colored glass in the sand. The ending is…uncertain; Honora still has the beach (although not the house), her friendship with Vivian, and her memories of McDermott, and maybe just a little bit more. Readers looking for an unambiguous HEA should probably look elsewhere, but with that said, this is a good book for a rainy day, or a day when you feel like being reflective and maybe crying just a little bit.


Kate Nagy is Editor at Large of Geek Speak Magazine.

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