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Fortune's RocksReview - Fortune's Rocks
A Novel
by Anita Shreve
Back Bay Books, 1999
Review by Su Terry
Oct 19th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 42)

Every year I select one book that I designate as the best book that I read that year. While this year is not over yet, Fortune's Rocks: A Novel by Anita Shreve is to date the uncontested winner. It has strong character development, detailed description of setting, and is emotionally evocative. It tackles challenging social issues and attempts to grapple with the conflicted views and gut-wrenching emotions often found among the many parties involved in controversial situations.

Fortune's Rocks is set at an exclusive beachside resort area of New Hampshire. It is 1899 and the Gilded Age is in full swing. The rich and famous from Boston's Beacon Hill flock to the seashore to see and be seen. The Biddefords are no exception. Phillip Biddeford is the president of the Atlantic Literary Club and the editor of the "Bay Quarterly" Boston's premiere literary magazine. During the summer, his commodious beach house becomes the elite salon for the intelligentsia of the moment. During the Summer of 1899, his coterie include Dr. John Haskell, a medical doctor, essayist, and social critic on the conditions of mill life in local Ely Falls, Zachariah Cote, a Quincy poet of popular romantic poesy, and Rufus Philbrick, a prominent local businessman with vested interest in the Ely Falls mills and their boardinghouses. Also present is the main character of this novel, Olympia Biddeford, Phillip's only child. Olympia is intellectually curious, emotionally intense, and at fifteen precariously straddles the fence between childhood innocence and womanly sensuality. While her parents are oblivious to her sexual ripening, it does not go unnoticed by Phillip Biddeford's intellectual sparring partners. Thus it is little surprise when John Haskell casually caresses Olympia's face during a photographic session and Olympia's youthful curiousity and imagination propels her body into a relationship with the much older and married John Haskell. The affair leads to predictable biological complications. The resulting scandal destroys the relationships within both households as well as underminds their individual social reputations. Social protocol for the era dictates what must be done to deal with Olympia and her "little indelicacy" and being a wise and obedient daughter, Olympia docilely submits to the dictums of her elders. While Olympia endeavors to live the traditional role established for a "ruined" daughter of wealth and society, her father had also taught her to think for herself and think she does. It is at this point that the story takes some interesting twists and turns.

Anita Shreve brings to this her seventh novel the fine honed expertise that has earned her the PEN/Winship Award, the coveted New England Book Award, and brought her international notoriety when her previous novel, The Pilot's Wife, also set at Fortune's Rock became an Oprah Book Selection. Unlike many modern novels, Shreve draws Olympia not as modern independent woman from our era miscast and kicking at the goads of archaic manners and mores from an earlier age. Olympia is very much a woman of her own era who knows and accepts the societal norms, constraints, and taboos of her society. Keeping within the restrictions of her mindset and her socially structured and repressive culture, Olympia struggles to work out solutions to her "situation" that are acceptable to her society yet also conscionable for herself.

Shreve pays wonderful attention to details in describing life at the turn of the century. This includes not only the illusionary beauty of the lives of the wealthy but also the harsh realities of servants and the working class poor. The lived acceptance of each character's reality as structured by the expected norms and roles set forth by society for that individual are an important part of this novel. This created reality is contrasted to common biological reality that all individuals, rich and poor, must endure as part of their animal kingdom heritage.

Fortune's Rocks is an exquisite novel. Olympia's joys and sorrows are captured with all the poignant longings of youthful innocence and all the complex pathos of a mature womanhood. Olympia's plight will break your heart. This is definitely an old-fashion tear-jerker of the "three hanky" variety. I would compare it favorable to Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. This will probably be my pick for best book I read this year…perhaps it will be yours also.

© 2001 Suzanne Garrison-Terry

Suzanne Garrison-Terry
Education: B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral Counseling from Fairfield University, and a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary. She is currently completing a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University (July 2001). She is a Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling College, Long Island, NY.

Interests in Mental Health: I am interested in the interplay between psychology and spirituality. My current research focuses on the role of hormonal fluctuation during puberty, pregnancy, and peri-menopause as a stimuli for mystical experiences. Through the study of autobiographical accounts of the mystical experiences of "historically accepted" female Christian mystics and additional biographical information, I am analyzing the connection between the onset of mystical experiences and biological data/symptomology for the potential existence of hormonal fluctuation or irregularity. If this sounds like an unusual topic, nota bene how many medieval female mystics began having "vision" on or about the age of 40!


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