by Anita Shreve
For all that has been written and reported and dramatized about wife abuse, it is no less shocking and frightening to read about it one more time. But that doesn’t mean the subject makes for a compelling novel, at least not in this particular, predictable case. Shreve has given her book several narrators: the victim, Maureen English, who for the sake of safety and anonymity later changes her name to Mary Amesbury (hers are the best, most moving sections); Helen Scofield, the journalist who writes a magazine story chronicling Maureen/Mary’s life; several citizens of St. Hilaire, a tiny dot of a Maine town where Maureen/Mary flees with her infant daughter to escape her brutal, alcoholic husband, Harrold.
Raised in the ’40s in a Chicago suburb by her unwed mother, Maureen had met Harrold in New York City at a news magazine. She was captivated by his dark impenetrable eyes; they went out for drinks and ended up in bed—along with silk ropes. There was no stopping what happened after that.
So Maureen thinks, “I knew it the way when you’re told you have a certain illness you understand you will not get better; or the way when you see a particular house on a particular landscape you think: yes, that is for me, I am going to live there.”
The pattern is set. Harrold drinks, he accuses Maureen of infidelity; he brutalizes her. Remorse is followed by reconciliation. Followed by pregnancy. And repeat, until Maureen’s getaway breaks the pattern.
Strange Fits of Passion is the victim of its similarity to Sleeping with the Enemy and other such endeavors. Ultimately, though, it fails as a chronicle of Maureen/Mary largely because Shreve, author of three previous books, paints an incomplete portrait of her. It is certainly never clear why she would be so attracted to Harrold. And because it’s revealed at the start that the story involves a murder, the shock value is gone.
The novel also fails as a chronicle of the ambitious journalist whose desire for glory—and a book contract—impels her to betray Mary. Because Helen’s magazine article is printed at the end of the book, it seems like an attempt to give the book a moral ambiguity it has heretofore lacked.
It doesn’t help that the part of the book given over to Helen’s narration is stilted and filled with high-flown palaver about the journalist’s dilemma: “Once the storyteller has her facts, whether they be told to her or be a product of her investigations, what then does she do with her material?” Tell it to William Allen White. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $18.95)