Author Anita Shreve in Aspen
ASPEN – Anita Shreve says the thing that unites her novels – an impressive 15 of them over the last 20 years – is the emphasis on a defining moment. “How a single moment in time can change your life forever,” she said. “A lot of the books have that as a theme – a chance meeting, a teenager’s alcoholic frenzy that takes his life off the track he’s on. That’s a fascination of mine.”Readers devoted to her work, however, might see a more pronounced thread to her stories, one having more to do with setting than plot device. Shreve could well be described as a New England writer. Her novels have taken place on the wooded campus of a Vermont boarding school and at an inn in the Berkshire Mountains; she has returned repeatedly to spots on or just off the New Hampshire coastline. And her characters occupy a niche on the social ladder that feels quintessentially New England. They are private-school deans and students, poets, publishers and college professors. Shreve’s personal biography is firmly rooted in New England; she was born near Boston, graduated from the city’s Tufts University, and now lives in Boston. But the association runs even deeper. She identifies reading “Ethan Frome” – a novel about Massachusetts society, by Massachusetts resident Edith Wharton – as a formative literary experience. Another favorite is Eugene O’Neill, who spent considerable time in Connecticut and the Massachusetts resort of Provincetown when he wasn’t living in Georgia, California or France.With “A Change in Altitude,” published in September, Shreve uproots herself in dramatic fashion. The novel is set in Kenya. Equatorial Eastern Africa is not exactly foreign turf. Shreve lived in Kenya for three years in the late ’70s, and became a journalist there, working for an English-language magazine that targeted an African audience. “It was a great way to see the country,” she notes of the experience.In “A Change in Altitude,” Shreve’s Africa experience serves not merely as a backdrop to the action, but a major presence in the story. The novel centers on Margaret, a young New Englander who has come to the capital city of Nairobi with her husband, Patrick, a doctor studying diseases particular to the region. Shreve examines the aspirations of her female protagonist – Margaret becomes a photographer for an anti-establishment Kenyan newspaper, a job she comes to love – Margaret and Patrick’s friendships with fellow expatriates, and, as Shreve typically does in her writing, the dynamics of marriage.Exerting pressure, and an exotic influence, on all of these matters is Kenya itself. The slums, the mountains, the way Africans defer to Westerners, even peculiar linguistic phrases are not merely background details, but players in the story that get plenty of attention from Shreve’s pen.”It was huge,” the 60-something Shreve of setting a story in Kenya. “I think Africa is actually a character in the novel. You get a feel for the city of Nairobi, the beauty of the place.” Most significant, you get a feel for what the surroundings do to the characters. “If the marriage had stayed in America, it would have survived quite nicely. But being in Africa, with all this moral uncertainty, it is not so settled.”Unsettled is the constant state of being for Margaret and Patrick. Both are intelligent and well-intentioned, but events begin to get under their skin. There are the burglaries of their homes, which are basically accepted as a fact of life. (Shreve says that she was robbed eight times in her years in Kenya; among the items taken were her car, her car tires, and her purse. “It was upsetting, but you got it. You understood it,” she said.) Both become attached to their work: Patrick travels often to conduct research and hold health clinics; Margaret develops a passion for serious photojournalism. And there are the extra-marital flirtations, genuine or suspected, with friends and co-workers.But most significant is Mount Kenya, which looms over the story literally from the first sentence (“We’re climbing Mount Kenya,” says Patrick) to the last (“She had climbed an entire mountain known for its spectacular view, and all she could see were small bits of white – and wasn’t that exhilarating?” is Margaret’s closing thought). Margaret and Patrick climb the mountain twice; the second one is Margaret’s moment of emotional release, and the novel’s satisfying resolution. But it is the first one that sets in motion the course of the story – the “single moment in time” that Shreve speaks of. The initial ascent is a tragedy on several fronts, raising questions about Margaret and Patrick’s relationship, and prompting a self-examination on Margaret’s part that becomes the life-force in the narrative.”It’s a marriage-changing moment,” noted Shreve, who appears for a reading, talk and Q&A session on Monday, March 8, at the Wheeler Opera House, in the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Winter Words series. “For Margaret, the consequences go on and on and on.”Another key component of “A Change in Altitude” is the newness of the marriage. From one scene to the next, Margaret and Patrick seem to be on different ground in the way they relate to one another – withholding one moment and reaching out the next, alternately lying, revealing and withdrawing.”My feeling was, this is an accurate portrayal, especially of the beginning of a marriage, when you don’t know this person the way you will in 10 years,” said Shreve, who has been married for nearly two decades. “You don’t know how a person will morally respond to a difficult question. Had the marriage stayed together, and they had been 14 years into it, this would have been a different story.”And it would have been a far different story had Shreve not enjoyed her own time in Africa the way she did. To her regret, she hasn’t been back to Kenya – it’s become too violent – but she spent a few weeks not long ago in South Africa. It is an illuminating moment in “A Change in Altitude” when Margaret realizes, despite the challenges, how attached she has become to the country.”She was trying to absorb Africa. But in some ways, it absorbed her,” Shreve said. “You’d think she’d want to hot-foot it out of there. But in the penultimate scene, on the mountain, we get a sense that it’s a new Margaret. I think she’s come into her own.”email@example.com
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A driver looking to squeeze one last four-wheel drive up Aspen Mountain discovered that it’s not the ascent but the descent that poses a challenge.