The Weight of Water

by Anita Shreve

Hardcover, 1997

Call number




Little, Brown and Company (1997), Edition: 1st, 256 pages


Fiction. Literature. HTML: Journeying to Smuttynose Island, off the coast of New Hampshire, to shoot a photo essay about a century-old double murder, a photographer becomes absorbed by the crime and increasingly obsessed with jealousy over the idea that her husband is having an affair..

User reviews

LibraryThing member lit_chick
“I wonder this: if you take a woman and push her to the edge, how will she behave?” (Ch 1)

The Weight of Water moves back and forth between past and present as photo journalist Jean Janes explores the 1873 murder of two Norwegian immigrants, Anethe and Karen Christensen, on the Isles of Shoals,
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off the New Hampshire coast. The gruesome murders were witnessed by a third woman, Maren Hontvedt. Jean discovers Maren’s voice in letters long since archived and forgotten.

The novel is well written, and an easy and compelling read. Shreve draws several parallels between the past and present narratives, between Jean’s life and Maren’s. Truthfully, I was surprised to find The Weight of Water nominated for an Orange Prize; but this is solid work, and Shreve deserved the recognition.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
I couldn't warm to this book. I think it tries too hard, it feels affected, insincere. It's mostly told from the perspective of Jean. She's a photographer sent to get photographs of Smuttynose, Maine, part of the Shoal Islands near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. In 1873, it was the setting of a
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gruesome double murder, so she visits the island accompanied by her husband, five-year-old daughter and her brother-in-law and his girlfriend. The novel is mostly written in a first person present voice that after far too many recent reads of literary fiction, I associate with an overreaching attempt at lyricism. I don't want to give the idea I always hate this technique--it can lend not just lyricism but an immediacy to a narrative if done well, but this felt strained to me, maybe because of the way from the beginning it bounced manically from paragraph to paragraph to the present to the past of the island to the background of Jean's relationship with her husband.

When we reached the first part of a memoir from the one survivor of the murders discovered by Jean, I felt relieved to shift to that voice. But the relief didn't last too long, because I never really believed in the voice of Maren. For one, Maren claims to have included the text of another's letter by memory, then she closes the first part on how she's too tired to continue for now--both aspects of that narrative seemed very artificial.

And as for the ultimate fate of that memoir... Well, what can I say? It didn't make me feel any more tender towards Jean. And how I felt about Jean, her husband and the other adults accompanying them? I never cared much. And in a first person narrative, especially one so obviously trying to break your heart, that's deadly. I found the novel depressing without ever being tragic in a cathartic way. I've never read Shreve before, and this novel doesn't make me want to read more of her.
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LibraryThing member atheist_goat
Note to Ms. Shreve: for a tragedy to be tragic, the reader must have the tiniest reason to give a sliver of a damn about at least one of the characters. I don't give a damn about four jerks on a yacht. And only A. S. Byatt has ever pulled off the Super Sekrit Manuscript Unread for a Hundred Years.
LibraryThing member Bookmarque
A new book about the 1873 murders on Smuttynose mentioned this book as one that sensationalized the case. As if much more of that was really needed. Around here, it’s pretty famous and many, many books have been written on the subject. The thing this new author objected to was that Shreve
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invented a new killer for her book. In reality, the ax murderer was caught, tried and hanged. Instead of following that line, Shreve gives us a secret deathbed confession discovered in the Portsmouth Athenaeum by a photographer on assignment.

Spoilers await -

Those are the two narratives that make up the book; the document and a present-day tale of photographer, Jean, who is on location with her husband, daughter, brother-in-law and his girlfriend. Tensions are running high due to the girlfriend’s presence. Jean is convinced she and her husband, Thomas are having an affair. Certainly she’s alluring and even her daughter, Billie, is under her spell. As a photographer myself, I found her work ethic pretty lax and she remarks on some gorgeous light, but doesn’t break out the ‘Blad. Strange. Overall though, the way Shreve wound the situation up tight to breaking was well done. She leaves us in held-breath suspense while the narrative changes time frame back to the past.

Those sections were less realistic for me because the writing was so polished and full of high language, considering the author. That author, Maren, survivor of the murders, had some education, but hadn’t had time to utilize any of her skills during the years she spent as a fisherman’s wife. It’s possible that after she returned to Norway she undertook a job where she wasn’t just a manual labor drudge, but Shreve didn’t set that up for us and so the writing style just didn’t check up with Maren’s real situation. The scenario though, I could buy. The bleak hours and stress of being on a basically barren island 10 miles from shore in a sea that’s not exactly placid. Being alone so much of the time, unloved and then with a nasty sister arriving on the side, that can make anyone snap. Still, Maren’s cool-headed crime clean up and frame job was a bit fanciful.

The women’s tales coincided well, although the blocking in my ebook copy was non-existent and the paragraphs changed abruptly from one to another with no visual cues. Both women were physically confined (a sailboat for Jean, the rocky island for Maren) with a narrow cast of companions, some positive and some negative. Each felt like their lives were slipping beyond their control. They felt threatened and not just by the awful weather persistent in both timelines. As the pressure mounted each responded differently, but that was the exercise; to see what they would do. Maren’s plight was certainly more worthy of pity than Jean’s, but I still felt empathy for that situation. The endings are not happy and offer little in the way of hope or condolence.

Since I used to work in Kittery and spent a lot of time in Portsmouth, it was fun wandering the streets with Jean and her family. Some parts of the town haven’t changed all that much in the last 150 years, and with Strawbery Banke preserved as a colonial showcase, it was easy to picture Maren’s time as well. Strangely enough, even though I’ve lived in NH all my life, I’ve never visited the islands themselves. They’re rich in history and totally up my alley so I’d like to go someday.
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LibraryThing member VirtualWord
Shreve, as usual, drew me in again with her tale of double murders a century apart in New Hampshire. When a photojournalist Jean is sent to research the older murders at a remote island lighthouse she is accompanied by her husband, daughter, brother-in-law and his girlfriend. The interpersonal
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relationships in this tale seem to parallel each other in many aspects and while I would not say it caused white knuckle tension I do say that Shreve is an artist at getting you so involved with the characters its imperative you know the outcome of the tensions among the present day characters.
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LibraryThing member DivineMissW
I really enjoy how this author tells a story. She gives you enough t o keep you interested without frustrating you. Delightfull!
LibraryThing member jamaicanmecrazy
Loved this historical murder/mystery/modern day story of betrayal. Anita Shreve is the master of weaving past & present.
LibraryThing member librisissimo
Interesting story of the murders on the Isles of Shoals. Intercutting with "current" story was OK, but sometimes confusing. "Confession" supposedly translated from the Norwegian was far too complex and erudite for its supposed author. A better-than-average Romance, but not quite literature.
LibraryThing member emers0207
Shreve always has an emotional story to tell and this is no exception. weaving past and present together we learn about an old mystery. I enjoyed the past story and she did an wonderful job of exploring the psychological affects of isolation and loneliness.
LibraryThing member francescadefreitas
This novel interweaves a crises in a present day family, with a murder mystery from the past. Both stories are terribly, terribly sad.

I didn't enjoy reading this. I found the cuts between present and past choppy and confusing. But mostly, it is the sadness that bothers me.
LibraryThing member jedisluzer
I bought this on the island where the murders take place, and loved it.
LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
The Weight of Water is a book I just read for my book group. Anita Shreve's books aren't normally ones I would pick to read, so this was a bit of a challenge.

I have to say that I didn't really care too much for the modern-day people and their woes. I just couldn't relate to the female characters
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here (either Jean or Adaline) as real people with real problems. However, I did enjoy the story about the Norwegian immigrants who came to Smuttynose Island. They had some serious issues to deal with, especially Maren, none the least of which were isolation, both mental and physical. Plus, a mystery always grabs me, and this one was based, in part, on real murders committed on that Island sometime back in the 1870s.

Overall, it was okay, and I say that because of the story from the past. The modern-day characterization was just kind of blah, and I think that it detracted from my reading and from trying to get a handle on the four people on the boat in the modern story.

I'd recommend it, but with reservations. I'm not a chick-lit kind of person, but I think readers who are will probably like the book much more than myself.
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LibraryThing member sjrp103
I'm not an Anita Shreeve fan. I personally thought all this book was was a waste of paper. I'm sorry ...
LibraryThing member tgsalter
two layers of story a century apart. Murder on the Isles of Shoals and a contemporary assignment to tell the tale again. well put together -- timelines all overlap, but it doesn't seem to matter.
LibraryThing member delphica
(#23 in the 2003 book challenge)

I haven't read any of her other books, I know she is usually reviewed quite well. This book was strangely compelling. It's not the kind of thing I would usually seek out, and it's a bit "chick lit" for my tastes, but I found myself racing through it because I was
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caught up with the story. Two stories are going on at once -- a woman, her husband and daughter, the husband's brother and his girlfriend are on a sailing trip because the woman is taking photographs of the scene of the 19th century double murder on the Isles of Shoals. The murder is real, but the backstory is fiction. Both stories, the people on the sailing trip and the 19th century immigrants living on the island, are wrapped up in themes of marriage and adultery, and a fairly mild sort of incest (I realize that sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it really was rather mild). The writing was fairly decent, even though I saw the "big amazing plot moment" at the end coming from about page 4.

Grade: B
Recommended: Not a bad quick read, worth picking up at the library, should appeal to fans of Anna Quindlen/Anne Tyler type novels.
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LibraryThing member jennstarr12
This book esentially tells two tales. One of the current day strife between Jean and he husband Thomas and the other of a years old murder. I found the parts about the trial itself to be ratehr boring. The mystery was also very predictable. The end was a shocker though.
LibraryThing member dka862
Smittynose Islane, Crime from one hundered years ago, death of two women
LibraryThing member FlorenceArt
A beautiful book but not for the faint-hearted. The end was a shock and weighed on me for some time.
LibraryThing member vasquirrel
Dark and brooding, The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve looks at what is seen on the surface and what lives in the depths of the human psyche. Shreve skillfully blends the experiences of a troubled couple and their young daughter, aboard a boat off of the coast of Massachusetts,with a century-old
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murder on the island they anchor near. Both stories are compelling, the latter based on actual events of the late 1800's.
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LibraryThing member xmaystarx
My first Shreve, haven't picked up another yet so it didn't compel me that much.
LibraryThing member moonshineandrosefire
In 1873, on the lonely, windswept islands of Isles of Shoals - a group of islands off the coast of New Hampshire - two women were brutally murdered. A third woman was found cowering in a sea cave at daybreak. More than a century later, Jean, a photographer working on a photoessay of the murders has
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arrived with her entire family - her husband, Thomas, and five-year-old daughter, Billie - on a boat skippered by her brother-in-law, Rich, and Rich's girlfriend Adaline. As Jean is immersed in the 19th-century murders while working on the photoessay, Thomas and Adaline find themselves drawn together - with potentially ruinous consequences. I thought this was a brilliant book, riveting storylines. I give it an A+!
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LibraryThing member SRumzi
Anita Shreve is one of my favorite authors. The story is about a couple who need to find out if they can support each other and if they should stay together. She is a newspaper photographer digging into an old ax murder. Interesting surprises.
LibraryThing member christinedux
On New England's Isle of Shoals, two stories told: the 1873 double murder of two Norwegian immigrants and the family problems of the photographer who discovers a diary kept by the lone survivor of the mayhem.
LibraryThing member EvelynBernard
I am generally ambivalent about Anita Shreve's books. Usually, I really like parts of them but other parts - not so much. The Weight of Water is the same for me. Jean is a photojournalist on assignment to cover a 100 year old murder mystery that occurred on Smuttynose - an island off the coat of
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Maine. (I looked it up - this murder really occurred) Accompanying her are her husband, their small daughter, her brother-in-law and his girlfriend. Five people, occupying space on a small boat for an extended period of time - it magnifies any marital strain, any jealousy, any petty remarks. A storm is brewing.

The novel bounces back and forth between Jean and her life and the occupants of a very small home on the island of Smuttynose. Maren and her husband are Norwegian immigrants who, 100 years ago, shared their home with his brother and sister-in-law, her sister and the occassional long-term boarder. Five people, occupying space in a very small home for an extended period of time - it magnifies any marital strain, any jealousy, any petty remarks. A storm is brewing. Because of the weather, the men who earn their living on the sea are unable to return home for the night. Jean discovers a document written by Maren on her deathbed detailing the accounts of the night when an axe murderer entered the house and brutally killed Maren's sister and her sister-in-law while Maren hid in a cave outside the house.

The part of the book about the Norwegian settlers and the murders was extremely interesting. There has been speculation for the last 100 years whether the convicted murderer was indeed guilty. Shreve tells a compelling story in which she presents her version of the events leading up to the murders and what she feels happened. She paints a grim picture of the isolation of these women and the hardships of their daily lives. She also gives the women character and personality and I was interested in how they coped with their daily lives.

Unfortunately, I did not feel the same way about the modern group. I did not find that any of these characters had been fleshed out to the point where I cared whether their lives were grim or glamorous. The book is worth reading, however, for the 'historical' portion of it.
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LibraryThing member bjellis
The writing is very good, but the structure and plotting is very bad. This book attempts to be 'literary' but the plotting and character development are very contrived. There are two parallel stories, and either one alone is really a good story with interesting characters and lots of fascinating
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facts. However, the stories don't really marry up, and just seem pasted together. Within each story, there were places where the plot or the characters' motivations just didn't work. Too bad. I think Shreve writes very well, but this book seems pasted together. Not one of her best.
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