27 July 2017

Anita Shreve: The Last Time They Met

Anita Shreve is undoubtedly my favourite fiction author. To be honest though, I didn't love this book until the very last page (as it's very confusing) and then I was like, wow, what an amazing book. I always find her writing to be well calculated and her stories to be really easy to relate to, but I think this is one of my favourite endings of all her books. Knowing how it ends, part of me wants to re-read it again to enjoy the rest of it but I definitely don't have the time, I have like 20 books at home I haven't read yet. 

Anita Shreve writes romance/mystery fiction geared towards women, so if this is not your thing I really don't think you'd enjoy this at all. Having said that, it's not at all your typical Danielle Steel/Nicholas Sparks mass market romance fiction. Shreve is a very talented writer, nothing is cheesy, overdone, or easily predictable. Especially not this book. I couldn't have predicted the ending if you paid me, and it was perfect. The little callout from USA Today on the cover calls it a "hypnotic" novel, and I think that's actually the perfect adjective for it.

Anita Shreve

The book follows a couple named Linda and Thomas at different points in their lives but in reverse-sequential order:

The literature forum:

Linda and Thomas are both poets and they are attending some sort of author forum in their ~50's. It's clear they haven't seen each other in a very long time, something bad has happened in Thomas' past, they have a history together, and other people are aware this is a dramatic meeting for the two of them. They spend some time together discussing how much they once loved each other, and they end up sleeping together.

I was honestly pretty bored reading this part because there are so many unanswered questions. How do they know each other, what happened to their relationship, why are these poems Thomas has released so emotional for Linda... etc., etc. It's hard for me to stay engaged when I don't have all the details and they aren't getting to them fast enough.

One thing I found interesting is that we learn the bad thing that happened to Thomas is the main event from another of Shreve's books, The Weight of Water. This is the first time I've seen Shreve connect two of her books like this and I'm not really sure what the point was, but I did like it. *IF YOU HAVEN'T READ THE WEIGHT OF WATER AND WANT TO, DON'T CONTINUE TO READ THIS PARAGRAPH I'M ABOUT TO RUIN THE PLOT. In The Weight of Water a couple (Thomas and his wife) goes boating and their toddler daughter falls off during a storm and they notice too late.. I didn't make the connection at first and thought, wow she really likes writing about kids falling off of boats, and wondered if this had been something she has experience with. I couldn't find any factual information on this but it could still be possible. If you've read The Weight of Water, you'll be interested to read this book because its interesting to read Thomas' reflection of his daughter drowning as an older man. I remember reading it and being absolutely horrified. Children dying of fatal accidents (of anything really) has to be the worst thing in the world.


Linda and Thomas are both in their ~20s and married to other people while living in Kenya (Linda is a member of the peace corps and Thomas' wife is on a grant from UNICEF). They bump into each other in the market and can't believe they are both living on a foreign continent but so close to each other (what a coincidence eh?). It's clear they have a history, they begin to write to each other and eventually have an affair. They start sneaking off to take weekends away together but eventually Thomas' wife gets pregnant. Linda, knowing it can't continue, actually tells Thomas' wife about the affair. She realizes they'd keep going as long as they could but perhaps if she revealed the affair to his wife there would be no way possible. In a way, you can understand her logic a bit, but in a way it also seems like a terrible, selfish, and unforgivable thing to do. It comes up at the literary forum in sort of an awkward, passive aggressive backhand at why they never worked out... but of course it makes no sense then because you don't have any idea what happened in Africa at that point.

I love this paragraph describing Thomas' wife Regina learning about his affair with Linda:

Regina's wail rose on the street; and in the car, she threw herself from side to side, battering herself against the door, asking, demanding to know: Did you sleep with her? And, How often? Screaming at the answers and the silences alike. Wanting dates and details, horrendous details he would not give her. In the cottage, she hurled herself against a wall. He tried to calm her, to touch her, but she was wild, having had, despite her news, her own goodly amount to drink. She vomited in the bathroom and wanted him to help her just as much as she wanted him to die."

I didn't really like this part because, I've realized, as a reader I don't love fiction set in places I can't relate to. A lot of the settings they described were so out of touch for me that I felt really removed from this section of the book.

High School:

Linda and Thomas meet in high school and instantly hit it off and form a relationship. Linda, is guarded because, as you find out, Linda's aunt's (who she lives with) boyfriend sexually assaulted her a number of times when she was younger, and her aunt sent her away to a girls' home to re-gain her purity or something... Anyways, the two of them form a close relationship but one night of drinking causes the two of them to get into a serious car accident, and Linda's aunt sends her away and doesn't permit her to contact Thomas afterwards. They don't re-connect again until the market in Africa.

This was the section I loved the most, especially the ending. There is a MASSIVE TWIST but all of the answers to all of the questions you've had as a reader the whole book are answered in the last two pages.

I did love the way Linda reflects on her second marriage to a man named Vincent. One loose end is that you literally never find out what happened to Linda's husband from when she was in Africa, but her second husband, Vincent, she remembers fondly. He died many years before the literature forum but she had two children with him (adults at that point). I love this paragraph in particular:

But mostly, she remembered those early years as good ones. Sitting in their small backyard in Belmont (the grill, the swing set, the plastic turtle pool), and watching Vincent plant tomatoes with the children, she would be filled with amazement that, against all odds, this had been given to her, that she and Vincent had made this family. She could not imagine what would have become of her had she not, for she saw the alternative as only a long, throbbing headache from which there would have been little relief."

Now I will proceed to spoil the ending for those of you who have read this so if you think you may want to stop here...

As it turns out, Linda actually DIES in that car accident when they're teenagers. You find this out at the very end of the novel but once you know this, you'll remember all sorts of clues scattered throughout that this was the case.

In the seconds they are airborne - in these last seconds of Linda's life - she sees not the past, the life that supposedly flashes before one's eyes, but the future: not the life she has lived, but the life she might have had. A cottage in a field of chrysanthemums in a country far away. A small boy she holds on her lap whose scalp is patchy with disease. A white room with lovely windows, a drafting table at its center. A child named Marcus who is more fragile than his sister. A spray of oranges on a kitchen floor. A hotel room with a mirror, her aging face. A plane rising from the clouds. A party to celebrate a book... Her beloved Thomas. Who will go on to write a series of poems called Magdalene about a girl who died in a car crash when she was only seventeen. And who will one day win a prize, and then will lose his daughter and, shortly before four o'clock on a Saturday afternoon in Toronto, will take his own life - the weight of his losses finally too much to bear.

After knowing she's actually been dead this whole time, it's hard to say what was going on for the plot... Was Thomas imagining it? Are we meant to believe the entire story was the split second when Linda's life flashed before her eyes? I'd love to discuss this with someone. I read through a lot of online reviews desperate for other people's perspectives on this and for the most part this book was really negatively received. People online actually claimed to have felt betrayed by this ending (lol). I thought it was really awesome.

While the reverse-sequential order and that massive twist did make this a bit of a confusing read compared to many other of Shreve's novels, it contains a ton of themes that I love to read about. Particularly, I enjoy any type of relationship that spans across a long period of time, and I also love characters that play the 'what if' game. I like characters who torment themselves with questions they'll never have answers to.

As a final thought, I did really like this book but it took me a while to get there (like almost the whole book). If you're new to Anita Shreve, I could definitely recommend some better ones to start with while you get used to her writing style, but if you've read some of her other stuff I for sure would read this one as well.


  1. Just read this book now and agree with your entire take on it. I believe the entire story was just Linda's imagining of a life she'll never get to live, as she dies in the car accident. A beautiful book, made perfect by that twist at the end. (Otherwise it was a bit dull).

  2. I read this book and found the ending confusing. I worked in a library and on issuing the book I asked the borrower to let me know what they thought. No one did. Years later and thank you bibliophstaphblog for your insight.

  3. I read this book and found the ending confusing. I worked in a library and on issuing the book I asked the borrower to let me know what they thought. No one did. Years later and thank you bibliophstaphblog for your insight.