Prepare to lose sleep, skip meals and ignore your e-mail. Anita Shreve's new novel, The Last Time They Met, will keep you turning its pages into the unwholesome hours of the night, even though you know you should put it down and hit the pillow. Shreve's reckless and heroic central character, Thomas Janes, has been in love with Linda Fallon all his life. Though they parted in the wake of a terrible car accident when both were high school seniors, Linda keeps showing up in Thomas' life at crucial moments.
They reconnect in Kenya where Linda is a Peace Corps volunteer. Unhappy in his marriage, Thomas rekindles their romance, but ends it when his wife announces she is pregnant.
Linda turns up in his life again at a poetry conference when both characters are well into middle age. Like Thomas, she has become a distinguished poet, a fitting vocation for two people who first met 35 years earlier in a high school poetry class. Now that he is divorced and she is widowed, will they finally find happiness with each other? Or will some unforeseen disaster separate them again? The reader learns the answer in the first hundred pages of the novel. From there, the narrative moves backward to their encounter in Africa, then on to their teenage love affair. It's not the first fictional experiment in reverse chronology. But it is Shreve's storytelling genius that keeps the suspense building, even after she seems to have given away the ending. The reader correctly senses, in some subterranean way, that secrets surrounding Thomas' and Linda's obsessive desire will be unfolded only at the end, when both characters are 17.
In this novel Shreve not only captures our universal hunger for a lifetime passion that will give meaning and continuity to our fragmentary and discontinuous lives, she also flawlessly captures the longing to retrieve something that was lost in early youth. And she does this while driving toward a jolting conclusion that forces the reader to reinterpret everything he has just read.
While the popular appeal of The Last Time They Met will probably send it straight to the bestseller list, its literary merits, especially the extraordinary use of unreliable narration, will make it a talked about book in literary circles for years to come.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.