Wednesday, September 16, 2020

the last book I read

Sea Glass by Anita Shreve.

It's 1929. So, already, no prizes for guessing a couple of key upcoming plot points. but let's not get ahead of ourselves. We're in New Hampshire, and Honora Willard has just become Honora Beecher after a fairly whirlwind romance with travelling typewriter salesman Sexton Beecher. They've been offered the chance to house-sit a delapidated ocean-front property, and, subsequently, to purchase it at a relatively bargain price, something Sexton arranges via some slightly shady financial shenanigans. No need for the little lady to worry her pretty little head by knowing about any of that stuff, though, of course. 

Meanwhile, Vivian Burton, slightly older and moving in slightly more elevated social circles, finds herself set up in a house at the opposite end of the beach after an ill-advised fling with Dickie Peets, a man with fingers in many pies, most of which turn out to be worthless when the bottom falls out of the stock market late in 1929. 

Meanwhile the plebs must do actual manual work to earn a crust and produce the fabulous consumer goods that the flapping classes like to consume. In the nearby town of Ely Falls, for instance, many men are employed by the local cotton mill, but times are getting tougher for everyone and the mill owners are looking to maximise profitability by cutting wages. What can the beleaguered workers do? Unionise their ass off and go out on strike, that's what. This being the United States such actions have the whiff of GODDAMN COMMUNISM about them, though (and to be fair there are a few actual Communist agitators about) and can legitimately be met with some violent retribution.

Having lost his typewriter-wrangling job following the economic downturn and some awkward revelations about his property-acquiring arrangements, Sexton Beecher finds himself having to take a job at the mill to keep some money coming in. When the strike is mooted, though, he lets slip that he has some typing and printing apparatus at home in his loft just ready and waiting to be used to print off inflammatory leaflets. So the entire strike committee relocates to Honora and Sexton's place for some serious revolutionary organising and some epic food and booze consumption (mostly courtesy of Vivian), not to mention some charged looks between McDermott, one of the strikers, and Honora.

This is all tremendous fun of course, but there comes a time when the partying and the printing of inflammatory leaflets has to stop and the serious striking and picketing has to start. And once it does there is a strong likelihood that the authorities (including the owners of the mill) will take a dim view of commie agitators in their midst. And so it proves - as soon as the strike begins, SHIT GETS REAL, violence erupts (not helped by Sexton's pulling a concealed weapon and blazing away) and some hired goons arrive to put an end to the strike, and indeed some of the strikers. This includes McDermott, but not Sexton, who, having been shot, escapes from hospital and goes on the lam, no doubt in a jalopy with frantic banjo music playing. In the aftermath of the violence and the continuing fallout from the Wall Street Crash, Honora occupies herself house-sitting for Vivian (her and Sexton's house having been repossessed by the bank) and acting as surrogate parent for young Alphonse, the barely-teenage mill worker that McDermott had previously taken under his wing.

Wikipedia's page on Sea Glass refers to it rather sniffily as a "romance novel". I'm not sure I recognise that description, as there's plenty of grit here (and not much romance, unless you count McDermott and Honora's unrequited moonings). One thing that I was mildly concerned about when I chose to read it next (more on this in a minute) was that it might be too similar for comfort in style and tone to its immediate predecessor, Breathing Lessons, written by a female American author of roughly similar age. Actually the two books are quite different - Sea Glass has a historical setting, an undertone of righteous anger about working conditions in late-1920s/early-1930s America, and some actual killing at the end which makes Breathing Lessons' concerns seem quaintly parochial. One interesting bit of background detail here is that Honora lost several family members when she was a child in the Halifax explosion of 1917, a disaster whose ferocity and scale is almost incomprehensible even now - for instance the half-ton main section of the anchor of the ship that exploded fell to earth two miles away.

Anyway, I enjoyed Sea Glass very much, as I did the two previous Anita Shreve books that featured on this blog. You may recall that they were, respectively, the first and one hundredth books to feature here. Well, I can tell you that Sea Glass is the three-hundredth book I have rambled inconsequentially about here since late 2006. The missing milestone (i.e. the two-hundredth review, when I can only assume I didn't have a handy unread Anita Shreve book to fill the gap with, or didn't realise the milestone was imminent until too late) was Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. I will concoct a stats summary in a separate post.

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