Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
A Wedding In December
by Anita Shreve
London, UK, 2005, 328 pages, ISBN 13:978-0-349-11799-7, RRP $24.95
This is American author Anita Shreve’s twelfth novel, and it’s plot centres around a wedding between cancer sufferer, Bridget, and her old high school sweetheart, Bill. The wedding acts as a catalyst, bringing together a group of seven now middle-aged protagonists who all attended school together at the Kidd Academy some twenty-six years earlier. The wedding is hosted by Nora, at an inn she has set up since the death of her famous, and much older, poet husband, Avery.
The married Harrison recalls his youthful desire for Nora, who at the time chose instead Harrison’s friend Steven, and as the weekend progresses we learn that something happened to Steven, causing his death, and that these events irrevocably changed the relationships and lives of the friends he left behind. Also present is Agnes, now a history teacher at Kidd Academy and still single, and Rob, who has found love and career success in the arts since coming out as gay.
As the weekend progresses, the past comes back into the consciousnesses of the characters and they are forced to reflect on the directions their lives have taken. Agnes longs to tell her old school chums about her long-standing relationship with the married teacher they were all so impressed with. This affair, which has continued for the entire interim, is eventually revealed by Agnes in an effort to counteract the impression that she is a sexless spinster. But Agnes knows that confessing to the relationship will certainly bring about its end and casue her to rethink her life’s direction. Part of Agnes’ inner dialogue – and an interesting diversion – is in the form of a work of fiction she is writing while staying at Nora’s inn.
Harrison is forced to examine his own marriage in the face of renewed contact with Nora, and to explain to his old friend what actually happened to Steven that night. Nora thinks back over her relationship with Avery, and realises she has not had the marriage she really wanted, but has instead been something of a protege, or handmaiden, to the ‘great man’ while he pursued other romantic entanglements. There is a sense that all the characters feel a sense of dissatisfaction with their choices, and the way their lives have worked out. Only Rob, and his partner Josh, seem satisfied with their current situation.
Shreve, author of the bestselling The Pilot’s Wife, (which was also made into a movie), is adept at producing page turners, with tight writing and plotting that keeps the reader guessing. Her characters are believable and visually imaginable, while the use of internal dialogue fleshes out their concerns and unspoken worries. But this reader couldn’t help but feel somewhat dissatisfied. The novel sets up a mystery to be solved, in much the same way as Donna Tartt did in The Secret History, but the denouement turns out to be quite pedestrian. The facts of Stephen’s demise, when revealed, rely on Harrison’s youthful feelings of embarrassment rather than a pithy murder plot replete with twists and turns, so that what we are left with is a portrait of dissatisfied baby boomers facing middle age with varying degrees of trepidation.
The happy couple wed, the guests leave the inn, and the reader is left wondering how the marriage between Bridget and Bill, conducted under the shadow of death and the disbelief of their old friends, will fare. But unfortunately we never find out. A Wedding in December is an immensely readable book, but it is not a memorable one.
About the reviewer: Liz Hall-Downs has been reading and performing poetry in public, on TV and radio in Australia and the USA, and publishing in journals, since 1983. She holds a BA from Deakin University (Victoria) with major studies in Professional Writing & Literature and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland. Some of Liz Hall Down’s publications include: Fit of Passion, (with Kim Downs), (Fit of Passion Collective, 1997), Girl With Green Hair, (Papyrus Publishing, 2000), People of the Wetlands, (Brisbane City Council, 1996), Mountains to Mangroves, and Mountains to Mangroves Haiku Cycle, (Brisbane City Council and Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society, 1999), Blackfellas Whitefellas Wetlands, (with B.R. Dionysius and Samuel Wagan Watson), (Brisbane City Council & Boondall Wetlands Management Committee, 2000).