Remembrance of things past - and stale

One of America's most successful novelists slips, tragically (sigh), into syrupy romance

The Last Time They Met By Anita Shreve Little, Brown 320 pp., $24.95

Part III

Remember the last time we read Anita Shreve's "The Last Time They Met"? As you'll recall, it's a love story told in three parts - in reverse. Pretty clever, eh?

Linda Fallon is a shy, minor poet preparing to read at a literary festival in Toronto. It's tangled with the usual collection of snobs, frauds, and sycophants. Fretting in her hotel room, she wishes she could write anonymously, but she knows these strained social engagements are good for her career and her confidence.

Since the death of her husband, much of the joy in her life has shriveled away. Nothing could surprise her more than the sudden appearance of Thomas Janes, the world-renowned poet, returning from a long grief-ridden exile.

He's so great that when he enters the conference, "a mild hush" falls over the room. When he speaks, "it seemed the audience held its breath, lest breathing cause the people there to miss a word." Reading this, I wanted to hold my breath, too.

We never get to hear any of Thomas's world-renowned poems, but "the applause that followed was - one had to say it - thunderous." This is - one has to say it - cliche.

Linda and Thomas were lovers years ago in Africa, and then years earlier in Boston. We know this because they ask each other questions like, "Do you remember when we were lovers years ago in Africa and then years earlier in Boston?"

It's a weekend of painful memories tinged with first mysterious and then tedious references to love, regret, incest, abortion, betrayal, and death - and the names of people we don't know. It's something like attending your spouse's college reunion.

But this first (last?) section ends on a hopeful note, the possibility of renewed love between two people ravaged by tragedy.

Linda turns away and thinks, "Years had passed, and all of life was different now." This is a very significant point. We can tell because it's repeated again at the end of the chapter in italics. In italics.

Part II

Halfway through "The Last Time They Met," I'm beginning to worry. Shreve can't resist her own meretricious prose. What's always been a patina of romantic melodrama in her writing has rusted into this novel's joints.

One of the challenges of telling a story in reverse is that the dramatic tension is constantly undercut. Everything is preempted by characters telling us about what happened to them before we get there. (In fact, if only Linda had read "The Weight of Water," Thomas wouldn't have had to recycle the tragic story of his daughter's drowning from Shreve's 1996 novel.)

But when these two lovers run into each other in Kenya, the story catches gear and moves forward with great promise. A marvelous researcher, Shreve re-creates the natural and political conditions of Nairobi in all its rich, contradictory detail.

Thomas, a young, largely unknown poet, is trapped in a land he can't understand and manacled to a woman he can't love. Linda, meanwhile, is married to a pleasant Englishman and works for the Peace Corps.

The two have no interest in hurting their spouses, but their passion, smoldering since they were teens, can't be extinguished. They meet in romantic hideaways. We get to read their love letters, texts that make their eventual success as writers seem truly astounding.

All the painful memories they recalled at that literary festival in the first part of the novel fill us with anticipation for the life-wrecking consummation they claimed took place back here in Africa. We couldn't be more primed for the climactic confrontation between the adulterers and their spouses at a fancy diplomatic party. It has the makings of a spectacular moment that Shreve can orchestrate like no one else. Here it comes....

Then it doesn't.

Now, on to those lusty teen years.

Part I

Last winter, Anita Shreve gave a reading at the Brookline Booksmith, one of the best independent booksellers left in Boston. Those of us without tickets waited more than an hour in the freezing night air for a chance to grab standing room in the basement venue.

Most of us were clutching copies of "The Pilot's Wife" or her just-released "Fortune's Rocks." By the time Shreve took the podium, the windowless room was packed with devoted readers. (If the fire marshal had objected, we would have bludgeoned him to death with our treasured copies of her books.)

I've just heard Shreve has a new novel coming out called "The Last Time They Met." Supposedly, there's a shocking surprise on the last page that changes everything. I can't wait. It seems like a dream.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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