How long can you keep a secret? Will you give yourself away in a thoughtless phrase or a nervous laugh? Will guilt break your silence? Or can you bottle it up, cork the top, and set your secret adrift at sea for decades until, eventually, time washes it back to your door and demands that you pour it out?
The two narrators in Anita Shreve’s 1997 novel, The Weight of Water, both have secrets, and circumstances have forced them both to uncork the stoppers and splash out all the messy details. “I have to let this story go,” opens Jean. And her counterpart, Maren, of nearly 100 years earlier begins her own memoir, “I mean with these pages… that the truth shall be known.” Neither will find absolution, for they are both soaked in “hurt that stories cannot ease, not with a thousand tellings.” But the weight that has burdened them for so long compels them to confess, although finding peace may be a hopeless cause.
On assignment for a magazine in the 1990’s, Jean has been hired to take photographs of Smuttynose Island, the setting of two 1873 murders. She has turned the job into a vacation, bringing along her husband and small daughter, and convincing Rich, her brother-in-law, and his latest girlfriend, Adaline, to ferry them to the island in his Morgan. Over the two-day excursion, Jean watches as Thomas, her husband, hits it off with the mesmerizing Adaline and fights the rising jealousy she feels for the younger woman. In response, she finds herself drawn to Rich, Thomas’s endearing brother who also sees the mounting interest between the other two adults. In the middle of this tension is young Billie, “an effervescence that wants to bubble up and pop out of the top of the bottle,” a little girl who makes pancakes and collects mussels and likes to have her picture taken. Between lobster dinners and swims in the ocean, the five people on the Morgan must find a balance between love and hate, between knowledge and ignorance.
This microcosm of life on the sailboat echoes the cramped life that Maren Hontvedt lived on Smuttynose more than 100 years earlier. Maren, a young Norwegian wife who came to New England with her new husband, arrived on “shallow and barren” Smuttynose in 1868 moving into a small house “of an entirely unadorned style…, and quite gloomy.” Within a few years, Maren’s toughened spinster sister and her beloved brother and his new wife had joined the family from Norway, and Maren and her husband made room in their home. The inevitable tensions of extended family became more pronounced in the tight quarters, and Maren found herself often in the middle. After five years on the island, catastrophe dismantled the family when Karen and Anethe, Maren’s sister and sister-in-law, were brutally murdered in the Hontvedt home while the men were away on the mainland. This is the famous story Jean has come to Smuttynose to investigate.
Maren was the only witness of the murders and recorded her whole story, including an account of the murders, in a yellowed, dusty document which lay long forgotten in the Portsmouth Athenaeum for many years. Jean finds the manuscript, learns the truth about the long-ago crime, and becomes the sole recipient of Maren’s confessions, while simultaneously watching her own life churn into a frothy storm. It seems inevitable that the two stories will find their common end in catastrophe.
The text of Shreve’s novel flows through several pages of Maren’s ancient narrative, then to a few hours of Jean’s life, and back to Maren’s words with barely an interrupting ripple. Facts about the island and transcripts of dialogue from the murder trial bob in and out of the story, painting the both the historical background and the setting. Despite all this juxtaposition, the novel reads easily. Jean and Maren are linked by jealousy and guilt, themes that span the centuries. With these emotions to connect them, their parallel stories become a single tale. Maren Hontvedt’s life, as read by Jean Janes, and the life of Jean herself collide like swells in an ocean storm. Slow to rise, almost imperceptible until the whitecaps crest up into foam, the stories mirror one another all the way up to their crashing ends.
“If you take a woman and push her to the edge,” Jean wonders, “how will she behave?” The Weight of Water provides a disheartening answer at best. As each woman tries to assuage the guilt that plagues her, she finds no relief. Not even confession can ease the hurt and, ultimately, the same sins will be repeated, though 100 years may pass. Shreve gets to the heart of a woman’s pain, but the reader may not like what she finds there. Just as Jean must decide what to do with the weighty confession passed to her from Maren Hontvedt, so also the reader of The Weight of Water must turn the final page with Jean’s own guilt on her hands.