Review of Body Surfing by Anita Shreve (Little, Brown & Co., 2007).
The conflict in Anita Shreve's new novel, Body Surfing, is evident from the first chapter. The half-Jewish protagonist, Sydney, is "Other." The family with whom she is spending the summer as a tutor is neither Jewish nor Other. They are WASPs, and they are the norm.
Already once divorced and once widowed, yet only 29, Sydney is not so much trying to carve out a new life for herself as she is treading water, attempting to stay afloat as she figures out what might possibly be next for her. She accepts the tutoring job because she must do something, and she finds herself living in the family's beach house to serve as teacher and hired friend to 18-year-old Julie.
Although Sydney's Judaism is not the major theme in the novel, her heritage does figure prominently in her interactions with all of the primary characters: Julie; Julie's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Edwards; and Julie's brothers, Ben and Jeff. It is clear from the first time we meet the status-obsessed Mrs. Edwards that Sydney is little more than hired help to her. At times, Sydney feels herself examined by Mrs. Edwards for "telltale signs of Jewishness," as though Sydney's shortcoming must certainly be visible if only one knew where to look.
Mrs. Edwards's animosity only grows as Sydney's life becomes progressively more intertwined with those of the Edwards siblings. Julie, as it turns out, is "slow," and Julie's mother ironically tasks the socially inferior Sydney with the unachievable job of turning Julie into top-college-acceptable WASP material. Sydney's inferiority in Mrs. Edwards's eyes--and in the eyes of another member of the family--provides justification to blame Sydney for the family's ills, to ignore what Sydney does accomplish for Julie and to avoid true regret when Sydney falls victim to cruel treatment. (My apologies for being vague here, but I've said all I can without giving away key points in the plot.) Mrs. Edwards believes herself and her sons to exist on a particular plateau of society, and the half-Jewish, divorced and widowed Sydney of working-class origins can never be permitted to be an equal.
Shreve gives us the briefest of windows into why Sydney, docile though not comfortable, is able to live with those who so clearly consider her inferior. In a flashback early in the novel, Shreve opens the window to an 11-year-old Sydney, sitting on a stoop and listening to her parents fight. She is startled to hear the word "Jew" flung from one parent to another like a cheap, expendable dish meant to shatter upon its landing. Sydney, then, has lived with this weight upon her since childhood. It's unclear if Shreve meant for Sydney's passive acceptance of the prejudice she encounters to be partially a result of Sydney's overall numbness stemming from all of the misfortune suffered in her young life, or if Sydney's acquiescence is merely a gap in the storytelling. In any event, Sydney is accustomed to this mistreatment, and, we muse, perhaps too willing to bear its burden.
Ultimately, Body Surfing is not so much a study of class and anti-Semitism in our modern era as it is a reflection of a riptide, Shreve's statement that these things do still matter in the 21st century and that even in a beach-read of a novel, they can pull the characters under the water despite their best efforts to stay afloat. Like the ocean waves that entice the characters to indulge in the activity of the novel's title, the book undulates in rhythms and images to guide the reader easily through its pages and its characters' lives. The mystery and the danger in both the ocean and in a multifaith world come from the invisible riptide always lurking beneath the surface.