A cold flame

In Anita Shreve's newest historical romance, a stuffy professor finds his life consumed by a woman he can never possess

Even at The Christian Science Monitor, opening the book packages that pour in every day is a dirty business. I used to come home with my shirt smudged black till I found a solution. But now, no matter how many times I remind my colleagues that I'm wearing a "manly smock," they insist on calling it an "apron."

Enjoying a novel by Anita Shreve puts me in a similarly defensive mood. I realize this raises a couchful of insecurities that can't be resolved in a book review, but it goes to the heart of Shreve's popularity with some readers - and her rejection by others. During the past 14 years, she's created a fan base that sends each of her novels to the bestseller list, first in hardback, then in paperback. Oprah helped, of course, by selecting "The Pilot's Wife" in 1998 for her massive club, but that coveted seal also reinforced Shreve's reputation as a "women's novelist."

To the extent that that's a put-down, it's unfortunate because what's remarkable about her best work is the way she hovers so tantalizingly between serious history and syrupy romance - between the portrayal of making textiles in New Hampshire and heaving breasts in red satin. Both lines of inquiry are fascinating, of course, but no one manages to straddle them as successfully as Shreve. Admittedly, there are missteps now and then, but usually, as in her new novel, she gets it just right.

"All He Ever Wanted" begins with fire in ice - a cataclysm that consumes a hotel on a freezing winter night. This disaster is a perfect metaphor for the passion ignited that evening in the heart of Nicholas Van Tassel, a cold professor of rhetoric at an undistinguished New England college. Tassel begins his memoir here, the first time he saw Etna Bliss, staring at the flames they had both barely escaped. In a moment, he falls desperately in love, escorts her safely home, and dedicates his life to possessing her.

He's a creepy narrator, and the circumstances of this memoir - a confession to his son while traveling by train to his sister's funeral - only heighten the macabre atmosphere. He speaks in a stilted, formal manner, infected with the pretensions of academia, but he's visited by painful moments of self-consciousness that make him confess how pompous and ridiculous he is. The effect, so well engineered by Shreve, is strangely engaging, eliciting feelings of revulsion and sympathy as Nicholas describes a life consumed by jealousy.

His obsession with Miss Bliss - he can't help making puns on her name or apologizing for his sophomoric wordplay - inspires all the usual stratagems of romance: He calls on her, brings her lovely gifts, and asks her for walks.

"I wanted to lay down my new cloak so that her feet might not be sullied by the dirty snow, but of course I could not - not only for the seeming excess of the gesture, which might frighten away any sane women, but also for the sheer impracticality of doing so at continuous intervals." Talk about a wild and crazy guy!

Alarmed by his strange-fitting happiness, Nicholas nevertheless behaves in every way like the besotted gentleman he is: "I shed, in those few months, the dull persona of the professor in favor of the more impassioned demeanor of the suitor." Throughout their very formal courtship, Etna is always polite and eager to get away from her suffocating aunt and uncle, but at some level, Nicholas suspects that she does not love him. That suspicion grows stronger when Etna says, "I do not love you."

Nicholas is pained by her candor, but remains convinced that she will learn to love him. And in the meantime, he points out with cool calculation, he's offering the only probable escape from a life of spinsterhood and financial dependence on her relatives.

This could hardly have been an unusual bargain at the time, and Shreve explores the emotional costs on both sides with real sympathy and historical precision.

Nicholas is a pompous bore, to be sure, but he's also devoted to his new wife. He provides a lovely home, and he encourages her freedom to pursue various interests. For her part, Etna raises two happy children and supports her husband's professional ambitions, but her affection for him never deepens. She remains committed to maintaining a room of her own and a degree of emotional and physical distance that continues to scratch his heart.

Meanwhile, Nicholas finds his passions similarly thwarted at the college. Through her portrayal of this modest liberal arts school, Shreve includes a wonderful background plot about the transformation of American higher education: the jarring rise of athletics, the shift toward professional degrees, and the corrosive influence of wealthy patrons. It's just the sort of substantive historical context that always runs beneath Shreve's romantic thrills.

Driven by domestic and professional ambitions, Nicholas takes a series of small steps that eventually lead to some giant moral lapses, and finally a monstrous plot of deception to win back his wife and ascend to the dean's office. In the tradition of a classic fable, he gets all he ever wanted - and everything he deserves.

Shreve takes some real risks here, not only by focusing on the villain but by speaking through him, forcing a long-suffering woman, the center of several of her most successful novels, to remain obscured and distant. It's another indication of the breadth of her talent, and another reason to keep her from being trapped in the kitchen.

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

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