It's always a thrill to start reading a book by Anita Shreve. Her writing has a refreshing astringency, like tart lemon sherbet after one scoop too many of rocky road. Every sentence is weighted, and the reader joins the writer in observing and interpreting the action.
BODY SURFING is the story of Sydney Sklar, recently widowed, who is tutoring eighteen-year-old Julie Edwards at a beach house in New Hampshire. Julie's older brothers visit and sparks ignite between Sydney and Jeff.
Now comes the trouble with spare writing: the reader SEES the various love affairs unfolding, but they're hard to fathom. The chemistry has to be taken on faith. The drawing of a finger along a thigh inspires sensual longing? An underwater touch in the dark is received with intractable revulsion? A distant swimmer in a wetsuit arouses a young girl's first sexual passion? We know it because the author tells us so, but it's all a bit abstract. Lives are changed by these minimal encounters but the reader doesn't feel the heat; the plot seems somehow under-explained.
The characters, too, are described by their actions, with interpretation laid on. Somehow you know they're as complex as anyone else but the narrative doesn't quite do that complexity justice. We might wonder why Mrs. Edwards ever thought a summer of tutoring would get her "slow" daughter into a Seven Sisters college; how an architect never came to discover that his daughter is gifted with artistic talent; why neither of them ever noticed that she was a lesbian. And as for Sydney, she seems strong, smart and kind, is already twice-married, yet she can't spot a cad when she sees one and instantly agrees to marry him, apparently because of the thigh-stroking mentioned above.
There's nothing awful about this book; the writing itself is a treat, though maybe better suited to stories with a period setting like SEA GLASS or FORTUNE'S ROCKS. However it's not Anita Shreve's best. If you haven't read her, don't start here. But if you love her style, you'll probably find this book a passable read.