A WEDDING IN DECEMBER
By Anita Shreve
Little, Brown 325 pp. $25.95.
Iwouldn't want to call Anita Shreve's very enjoyable novel derivative, but it's a homage to that old movie "The Big Chill" and also to "The Group," that Mary McCarthy novel where all those college girls get together again as women, as well as to that new series on Fox that takes a gaggle of teenagers and shows what happens to them 20 years later. Is it a formula or a tradition to take a flock of young people, show how lively (or not) they are and then click forward two decades to see what's become of their lives?
In this case, six grown-ups, who all went to the Kidd Academy in Maine, have been summoned, more than 20 years after their graduation, to a charming bed-and-breakfast that belongs to Nora, the former class beauty. By many, Nora would be judged to have had a lucky life. When she was still in her teens, she married a world-class poet -- high up enough in that exalted hierarchy that he pouted every year he didn't get the Nobel Prize. Now Nora, a widow, has turned their old home in rural Massachusetts into a domestic paradise of taste and peach.
Which is why, perhaps, Bill, a divorced schoolmate who married the wrong woman shortly after graduation, has chosen Nora's inn as the place to finally marry Bridget, his wonderful high school sweetheart. They plan to stay together forever and happily, but there's a catch: Bridget is suffering from breast cancer and has only a 50 percent chance of surviving.
I'm not giving the plot away here -- just the characters (three down, four to go). There's Harrison, melancholy and married, who harbors a dreadful secret. There's Agnes, who has never married, stayed on at Kidd and who also harbors a dreadful secret. And there are Jerry-and-Julie, unpleasant stick figures who drive up to the inn in a limo, put here in the narrative, I believe, to show that money can't buy happiness. They also conceal a dreadful secret, to which I personally took grave offense. (It was a cheap shot, Ms. Shreve.) If you discard Jerry-and-Julie, that leaves five grown-ups (and a mysterious handsome man who drowned years ago).
It soon becomes clear that Harrison, in his quiet, well-bred way, has always been crazy about the elusive, princesslike Nora. And Agnes, whom they all think of as just another sturdy spinster, tries to come to terms with her own twisted life by writing a tale that serves as an anti-narrative here -- a fictional account of the great explosion that occurred in the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, during World War I and blinded hundreds of citizens. Are we all so blinded by the events of our early lives that it takes decades to figure out the meaning of what happened to us? Agnes's story would seem to back up that position.
I really liked this book. It's beautifully and imaginatively written. But I also have to admit that "A Wedding in December" works at one level as exceedingly high-class domestic porn -- a paean to how we all wish we could live if we had the time, money, discipline and dedication. There's nothing musty or froufrou about Nora's inn. It embodies physical and spiritual perfection. The pillows, the linens, the flowers all are perfect. There's an espresso machine in the library, where the male characters spend their time pushing buttons and manifesting perfect coffee. A few adolescents appear from time to time, but Nora has put a pool table in the basement, so the kids are never underfoot.
It's not that many of us don't have some of these things, but it's the soul behind this particular mise-en-scene, the sacrifice, love and devotion, that makes this refuge so cosmically appealing. Heaven is not mere material comfort, the author suggests, no matter how bounteous. Heaven is being looked after as if you were the most loved human being on Earth. It is the saintly Nora, after all, who has chosen the flowers, provided the espresso, remembered to install the pool table. Whether such attention to detail will finally yield up happiness for all or some of the characters remains to be seen.
The New England setting comes from a hard, sad, strict place in the American mind. Bridget, for instance, is getting married. This is a big day in her life, to put it mildly. Chemotherapy has caused her to gain 12 pounds. She manages to bring two outfits that she doesn't like and that don't fit, and then she spends a good deal of time crushing her body into "first the one-piece, then the panty hose, then the skirt girdle." I have to ask, from out here in California, what's a one-piece? And how is a skirt girdle different from a girdle? Do American women even wear girdles anymore? And would it be an unheard-of crime, over there in rural Massachusetts, to just buy a couple of pretty new dresses that fit? A grim quality, a denial of pleasure of any kind, runs through this book. It's strange -- the valorization of all things domestic, the denigration of all things personal. There's a peculiar ambivalence here that may go back to our Puritan forefathers: It's all right to pile up luxury as long as you make sure you're still physically uncomfortable.
In keeping with that, the haunting secrets that these characters seem so desperate to conceal would be dismissed in other parts of the country with a shake of the head, a bemused smile and a "No kidding! And you didn't tell us that all these years?" But from Agnes's position, revealing her story means she'll be sent to some kind of psychological Devil's Island, cut off from all the friends of her youth forever. Jerry-and-Julie conceal what they believe to be a flat-out, life-killing disgrace. The secret of the boy who died in his teens is just a bodily function; no biggie, some might say. The secret of how Nora, beautiful and kind as she is, has spent her life does bring a shudder to the reader, but it only goes to prove (what should be) the old adage: Never marry a poet. Or if you must, at least marry a nice one!
Despite its many pleasures, there's an old-fashioned feel to "A Wedding in December." It seems to have been written not for us, exactly, but maybe for our mothers, women of entrenched respectability who are very easily shocked.
Sunday in Book World
* Louis Freeh breaks his silence -- and then some -- on Bill Clinton.
* Margaret Atwood interviews Canadian poet Patrick Lane about his recovery from alcoholism.
* Alison Lurie chronicles a sordid campus breakup.
* Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre reveal their secrets of seduction.
* Military men -- and women -- drop their swords for pens.