Thursday 20 September 2018

Obituary: Anita Shreve

US novelist hit the big time after exposure on Oprah Winfrey show

BESTSELLER: Journalist turned author Anita Shreve
BESTSELLER: Journalist turned author Anita Shreve

Anita Shreve, the American novelist, who has died aged 71, was catapulted into the ranks of airport bookstall bestsellers when, in 1999, her sixth novel, The Pilot's Wife, was picked from a bag of books given to Oprah Winfrey, who chose it for her Book Club, a show watched by more than 13 million Americans.

The book sold four million copies and, as Anita Shreve's editor Alan Samson put it, broke her out of "mid-list hell". Her five previous novels, sales of which had tended to peak at around 16,000 per book, were reissued and went on to sell around a million each. Of these, The Weight of Water (1997), based on the true story of a double murder in 1873 off the New Hampshire coast, was subsequently shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

Altogether Anita Shreve published 19 novels, full of flawed characters, broken relationships and secret histories, most of which explored the impact of some great catastrophe on the lives of ordinary people, mainly women.

In The Pilot's Wife, it was a widow's discovery after her husband's death that he had another wife and child in a different country.

The theme evidently appealed to Oprah, whose discussion of the book featured some real-life secret families, alongside the author. Other novels tackled such themes as incest, domestic violence and infanticide.

"I'm interested in the consequences of a single, reckless act," Anita Shreve told an interviewer. "If a driver kills a pedestrian, or if a woman looks across a crowded room at the wrong man, there's a ripple effect on the lives of the people around them."

Anita Shreve's romances were characterised by eloquent, painterly prose and she used dialogue to tell the story, thereby negating the need for lengthy descriptions. She never shied away from heavy subject matter, and in market research conducted by Time Warner, her readers - mostly women - came up with the phrase "life intensely felt" to describe her writing.

Yet in the eyes of many critics Anita Shreve seemed unable to transcend the category of "popular". "Pretentious and meretricious" and "emotionally manipulative" were among verdicts delivered by reviewers over the years (to, respectively, A Wedding in December (2005) and Testimony (2008)), though the journalist Rachel Simhon was impressed by The Last Time They Met (2001) a tale of love won, lost and rediscovered, describing it as a novel of "great sophistication and compassion".

The oldest of three daughters of an airline pilot, Anita Hale Shreve was born on October 7. 1946 at Dedham, a middle-class suburb of Boston.

After taking a degree in English at Tufts University she taught at a high school in Reading, Massachusetts, for five years, before leaving to become a writer.

She began with short stories, some of which were published in magazines, but found it difficult to make ends meet.

Instead she became a journalist, working in Kenya as a magazine editor, and later in New York, where she freelanced for Newsweek and The New York Times magazine.

She expanded two of her magazine articles into the books Remaking Motherhood (1987) and Women Together, Women Alone (1989).

Her first novel, Eden Close, appeared in 1989 when she was 43. Her last, The Stars Are Fire, was published last year.

Pretty and youthful-looking, Anita Shreve had an air of reserve that made her a frustratingly opaque interviewee.

Attempts to find echoes of her own life in her work were usually dismissed with a polite shrug.

Anita Shreve, who died on March 29, was similarly reticent about her personal life, her fourth husband, John Osborn, once admitting that he did not know the names of two of her previous husbands.

He survives her with a son and daughter from her marriage to John Clemans.

© Telegraph

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment

Back to top