A looming disaster rips the fabric of prosperity

The last time we met Anita Shreve, she had just published a syrupy romance called "The Last Time They Met." Recently released in paperback, it tells the story of a lonely poet in reverse, working its way back to a final paragraph that invalidates everything you've endured. The novel's gimmick and its overwrought style suggested, sadly, that Shreve had finally succumbed to the strain of treacle that's always sweetened her best fiction.

It's a relief to discover that with her latest work, "Sea Glass," she's regained her balance. The old tricks are still here Â- the unrequited passion, the "stay tuned, dear reader" chapter endings, and the shocking conclusion Â- but they've been tightly harnessed to serve the story rather than drag it along behind. Perhaps it's no coincidence that this success takes place at the seaside house we remember from her best novels, "The Pilot's Wife" and "Fortune's Rocks."

The year is 1929. Honora has just caught the attention of Sexton Beecher, a slick typewriter salesman enjoying boom times. Their salad days are full of the excitement of getting to know each other. Sexton bends company rules to bring his bride along on sales trips, where he works customers as expertly as Honora works the typewriter keys. Together they entice buyer after buyer under the spell of Sexton's enthusiasm.

Traveling and working so hard discourage much contemplation, but at quiet times a little tooth of doubt nibbles at Honora's conscience. Is there something superficial about her good-looking husband, even a little childish about his sense of entitlement? His salesman patter "that a thing worth having is worth having now" grates against her frugal values.

Soon, Sexton has his heart set on buying the rundown beach house they've been renting. It's far too large for their needs, and the repairs alone are sure to bankrupt them, but he's so wedded to the idea that she suspends her disbelief.

Unfortunately, Sexton secures the mortgage with a tiny lie, a harmless rearranging of facts, the sort of stretch that would never have been noticed or if noticed, never condemned, except that he makes this unethical, highly leveraged leap "on the eve of the single biggest economic disaster in American history."

Shreve is one of America's most entertaining historical novelists because she's more interested in telling us about individuals than about the past. "Sea Glass" is seeped in the details of its time, but her characters walk on their own feet rather than across historical footnotes.

At first, Black Thursday seems like a brief, temporary disaster for the very rich, but soon, the gears of corporate America begin to skip cogs and grind their teeth. Honora finds herself caught in the crumbling structure of her husband's expediency. The market for office machines collapses just as the bank discovers Sexton's creative financing and calls in the mortgage.

Shreve follows the threads of this little snag out into the whole cloth of the Great Depression, moving from the stress it places on Honora's marriage to the mill where Sexton searches for work. As demand for textiles evaporates, working conditions, already toxic, become entirely unbearable, and misery spreads throughout the laborers' dorms and infects the town.

Around the mill scurries Francis, a child struggling uncomplainingly under the weight of abysmal poverty. He never says it, but you know he wants to yell, "God bless us, everyone!" He's befriended by McDermott, a kindly machine operator who, at 20, has already given his life and his hearing to the mills.

At the other end of the economic ladder Â- at least before the rungs start to snap Â- are the socialites vacationing along the beach near Honora's house. While Francis's mother is boiling a bone for her six children, Vivian and her drunken friends are planning a jaunt to Havana.

Yes, it's social analysis in primary colors, but when the market crashes, Shreve mixes these pigments in the most interesting ways. Vivian's friends are ruined, reduced to the indignity of working, but Vivian survives with her fortune intact. What changes her, though, is an encounter with Honora on the beach as the lonely housewife looks for sea glass.

Shreve pushes hard on this symbol, turning it in her hands like a 19th-century novelist. There's a risk of pretension here, but the colorful shards worn smooth by the grinding sea make such lovely emblems of these shattered characters.

As the labor conflict in town reaches a flash point, all of them are drawn together for a few weeks of union camaraderie that none of them could have anticipated. Honora is forced to realize that the handsome man she married has no other attractive qualities. McDermott must endure watching the woman he loves in the arms of a man he can't respect. And Vivian, the unflappable flapper, claims she's just in it for a lark, but clearly she's discovered a new sense of purpose deeper than her martinis.

The surprise ending isn't entirely surprising, but it's an entirely plausible climax for this sensitive, muted story about two honorable people who know they can't be in love. The best news, though, is that Shreve continues to stretch between romantic and historical fiction in a way that combines the best of both genres.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor, charlesr@csps.com.

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