FORTUNE'S ROCKS

By Anita Shreve

Little, Brown. 453 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Carolyn See

Some years ago -- as a wretched divorcee -- I was out on an afternoon date with one of those people you meet when you're divorced, a nice enough man with a couple of screws loose. We were driving in the San Fernando Valley when suddenly he stopped the car and galloped down the sidewalk after a sinuous young woman who was wearing a T-shirt with a message on it. "Is it true?" he yelled at her, "Are you one? Are you?"

She grinned and nodded that she was, and he got back into the car. "She is one," he said. "Can you imagine? She had `Other W' printed on her shirt. For `Other Woman.' " It seemed less than good news that the world of adult women tended to divide into two unions, like SAG and AFTRA, like the old AFL and CIO: Wives and Other W's.

Whether or not you'll love Anita Shreve's Fortune's Rocks depends on what union card you're carrying. Other W's will hail this meticulously researched document as an anthem, a manifesto, a brilliant defense of all they've thought and felt. Wives -- especially dumped wives -- may read up to page 200 or so and feel the need to reach for some Advil.

Fortune's Rocks boasts distinguished literary ancestors, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter for one, and Edith Wharton's Summer for another. Both of these novels conjure up the stiflingly unrealistic morality of America's highly puritanical New England (albeit at different times in our nation's history); both of them focus on the irrevocable effects that a few moments of sexual passion can set in motion, not just in one couple but in their entire surrounding community. Both novels make note of how social class figures into behavior and misbehavior: Hester Prynne, we all remember, redeems her self and her life by helping the deserving poor so much that people begin to think of her scarlet "A" as standing for "Able," not "Adultery," and the heroine of Summer, guided by her aging mentor and eventual lover, is made to see that poverty, squalor and dreadful childbirth may lie in wait for any girl who does not guard her virtue.

All this material is utterly American, and Shreve's heroine, young Olympia Bidderford, is strictly in this tradition. The year is 1899. It is the beginning of summer, and the Bidderfords have come out from Boston to their vacation home in Fortune's Rocks, on the seacoast of Maine. The Bidderford family is small, privileged. Mr. Bidderford is independently wealthy and edits an esteemed literary quarterly. His beautiful wife spends endless time on her fashionable toilette and has more or less defined herself as an interesting invalid. Olympia, the only child, is the cherished apple of her father's eye. She has been educated by him at home, and as a result is very well read, extremely cultivated. But this year, now that Olympia has turned 15, another sort of knowledge is beginning to kick in.

At the beginning of the novel, she walks down the beach in full taffeta street dress and takes off her shoes and stockings to dabble her bare feet in the sea foam. She's chosen to take her walk when the men customarily bathe, and these males look at her in a particular way. Olympia knows they're looking; they know that she knows they're looking, and so on. A staid bathing beach in Maine has turned, for a few minutes, into the African veld during mating season. And thus Olympia's life as a "woman" begins.

Shreve's attention to detail is prodigious. We know exactly what the Bidderfords eat and when and how they eat it. We know each and every article of clothing that Olympia and her mother wear. We know -- and tend to believe -- everything they say, and we are to believe in the stilted and formal way they say it. When, at a fairly routine dinner party, we are shown the menu and the clothing and the mirrored candles and the mannered guests, the narrative rings true.

We have to believe all this, so that we can follow the author as she constructs a sexual affair -- which will soon turn into a "great" and all-encompassing "love" -- between Olympia and one of those dinner guests. John Haskell, a married man in his middle forties with four children, is at once a physician, essayist, photographer and social activist who runs a medical clinic over in Ely Falls, the wretched mill town adjacent to Fortune's Rocks. (If Haskell had turned up 35 fictional years later in a Dashiell Hammett novel, he would have been instantly labeled by any Hammett detective as a "wrongo," but fictional women tend to see these men a little differently.)

So, of course, it happens. Haskell looks at Olympia, she looks at him, he looks at her. All too soon he is stroking her surreptitiously under the chin as he's taking an outdoor family photograph. There's a stolen glance here, a stolen glance there, and they quickly find themselves in the grip of something bigger than both of them. On the 4th of July, Olympia runs away to spend the day with Haskell at his clinic, and during the course of the afternoon watches as he delivers a breech-birth baby in squalid conditions. (Wharton readers will remember the bare leg of the wretched country woman splayed out on filthy mattress ticking.) Olympia understands -- and how! -- what sex is all about.

And that's that. The affair begins, continues apace, until the couple is discovered, most disgracefully, at Olympia's 16th birthday party by Haskell's wife.

What happens in the second half of the novel is quite different in form and content from the first, and presents a challenge both to novelist and reader. Shreve needs Olympia to stay the heroine of the book. The girl, though having shamed her family, is portrayed as her parents' victim when they shut her up in her room and try to figure out what to do. (Haskell, who has mentioned earlier that his wife doesn't know how to give pleasure, and who later dismisses his desertion of his four children by saying that they always seemed to belong to his wife more than to him anyway, has gone off someplace.) Olympia is pregnant, of course, and her father insists that she give up the baby. True to his time, Mr. Bidderford takes a dim view of her having had sex with a married man and conceiving an illegitimate child from that union.

But Shreve wants our sympathies to stay with Olympia, who never repents of her love and, after a few years, returns to Fortune's Rocks, the only place where she has been happy. She's an Other W and proud of it. She finds that other citizens here experience lives of sexual passion (notably a business associate of her father, who lives as an open homosexual in this small beach resort, although how that would shake out in either a real or fictional New England small town at the turn of the century is hard to say).

The overriding fantasies of the Other W are that (a) the wife and children of the Beloved will just wander off and never be seen again and (b) the man who behaved like a cad to his first wife will never behave like that again, and will settle down in perfect constancy and uxoriousness with the Other W. These are, again, fantasies, very dearly held by a portion of the female population. Wives and children from these same domestic upsets may carry another set of fantasies, more bloody in nature.

No matter. The first half of Fortune's Rocks is grounded in reality; the second half flies around. Can it really be true that there is not karma, that you can raise holy raving hell in the world you live in and still get everything you want? Shreve floats this tantalizing theory and argues strenuously for it. Other W's everywhere will love this book.

Carolyn See reviews for Book World on Fridays in the Style section. She is the author, most recently, of the novel "The Handyman."