Seven high school friends meet 27 years after graduation for a long weekend. Such is the "Big Chill" setup of Anita Shreve's new novel A Wedding in December. As the title indicates, it's a wedding rather than a funeral that's sparked this particular reunion, but one member is missing. Stephen Otis, the most charismatic and athletic of the friends, drowned the spring of their senior year.
The happy couple is Bill and Bridget, former high school sweethearts who broke up in college.
Two years ago, Bill divorced his wife and daughter to be with Bridget, a single mom who's battling cancer. Nora, now an innkeeper, is throwing the wedding for them at her inn in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts.
The rest of the wedding party includes Agnes, who teaches history at their old private school; Jerry, a New York businessman, and his wife; Rob, a concert pianist, and his partner; Harrison, a publisher, and Bridget's teenage son, Matt.
Harrison, who was Stephen's roommate, is the one still affected by his death (because he knows the most about it?). "The name produced in Harrison, as it always did, a clench in his gut along with a slight oil slick of shame." But as the weekend progresses, Stephen's memory makes itself felt more and more.
Not that his death is the only thing these characters have to regret. Examining the choices that make up a life's direction (particularly regarding love) certainly makes sense for middle-aged friends celebrating a poignant ceremony.
Nora, for example, is the widow of Carl, a celebrated poet, who left his first wife for her when Nora was in college.
"When a man leaves his wife and children for another woman, there's a burden on that woman. She has to be worth the sacrifice.... No one is worth that kind of sacrifice."
And since her husband turned out to be as selfish as he was talented, Nora is the one who paid. "In Carl's case, it was even worse. To be worth the sacrifice, every word had to be incandescent."
Agnes also has what could be termed an adultery hangover. Her 26-year relationship with a married English teacher (the friends' favorite teacher in high school) is on indefinite hold.
"Stories, Agnes thought, were usually about things that had occurred. Her particular story was about things that had not occurred. What had not occurred was the sum of all the days and years she and Jim had not had together, the days and years that could never be returned. But, she thought, her story wasn't over yet. Possibilities remained."
Shreve tends to split her time between period novels such as "Fortune's Rocks" and "All He Ever Wanted" and modern ones such as "Sea Glass" and "The Pilot's Wife."
Here she combines both worlds, since Agnes is writing a story set during the Halifax, Nova Scotia, harbor explosion during World War I. A munitions ship collided with a freighter carrying TNT and picric acid. The resulting explosion killed 2,000 people.
"Wedding" jumps back and forth between the wedding party and the adventures of eye surgeon Innes Finch, a newcomer to Halifax who finds his services much in demand.
Shreve sets the wedding in December of 2001, presumably to contrast the explosion in Halifax with the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington that took place earlier in 2001. Unfortunately, her characters can't seem to find anything to say about the events of Sept. 11 that isn't either trite or teeth-grindingly banal.
Bridget's monologues about the small indignities and gigantic fears she's grappling with are much more fully realized.
For example, Bridget's stuck getting married in a hairdo she hates, because the folks who wash her wig for her didn't bother to read the instructions.
"Bridget had been mildly distraught, a week ago, to see that she would be married in a flip, but she knew enough not to try to wash it herself, which she had once done, the outcome disastrous and resulting in a shoulder-length Afro."
While Bridget is a beautifully realized character, a couple of the other friends get rather short shrift in the narrative. Jerry doesn't have much to do besides annoy his wife and antagonize Harrison, and Rob is relegated to that modern cliché, the saintly gay friend.
Finally, the novel starts to feel a little soap opera-ish, since by the end, even Agnes's fictional characters are having affairs.
But as a melancholy character study, "Wedding" provides just enough interest that readers won't want to send their regrets.
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamzoo, Mich.