In Sea Glass [Little, Brown and Co], so dubbed for the shards of bottles smoothed into useless baubles by the ocean, author Anita Shreve tells the story of an industrial New Hampshire town at the onset of the Great Depression. Much like Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Sea Glass evolves via the perspectives of each of six major characters, who differ by generation, class and profession. The novel’s themes of human resiliency, the relativity of affluence and the commonalities among all men conform naturally to this structure. As the characters find themselves embroiled in a union battle (and oddly enough, they are all on the side of the Union), Marxist repartee, speakeasy action and hushed questions of loyalty drive the plot. The novel ends shortly after a surprise visit from men dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan. The characters themselves remark upon the peculiarity of this appearance, as they are not in the South.
Historical inconsistencies aside, Sea Glass, holds its own as a creative and experimental piece of fiction. Even more impressively, it holds the reader’s attention. By their merit alone, the names of the characters, Honora and Sexton, are sufficient reason to peruse this novel. However, as a work of literature, which must stand alongside an entire tradition created by this highly dramatic and revealing period in US history, Shreve’s novel fails to capture the nobility and desperation evident in the works of the literary greats, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and so forth. Next to Steinbeck’s fluid text, Shreve’s staccato, often inverted sentences and contrived dialogue read awkwardly. Vivian, a past-her-prime, Boston socialite is Shreve’s foil to Daisy Buchanan, but lacks the torpor which makes the original so intriguing and tragic. While Vivian’s tinkering with local unions proves amusing, it is improbable and superficial. Sea Glass’s similarities to other American masterpieces only highlight its relative mediocrity as a measure of a time and a people. If you’re looking for The Great American Novel, try The Grapes of Wrath. If you’re looking to while away a summer afternoon, pick up Sea Glass for its soap opera appeal and organizational quirks.