A Review of 'A Change in Altitude' by Anita Shreve

Monday, December 14, 2009
By Jill Earl

Newlyweds Margaret and Patrick arrive in Kenya intending to stay for a year for his residency at a local hospital. As they adjust to new surroundings, so very different from their American upper-class life, Patrick easily settles into his medical duties. Life for Margaret, however, increasingly catches her off balance. Then, a tragic accident occurs and in its aftermath, Margaret's journey for closure involves an attempt to rescue her young marriage while rediscovering herself in the process.

I enjoyed A Change in Altitude, Anita Shreve’s latest release, which was my first encounter with the author’s novels. I initially found the characters a bit off-putting, particularly their hosts somewhat pompous Arthur and his icy wife Diana, but warmed up to central character Margaret quite a bit as I continued to read. I attributed my change of heart to the character’s willingness to do more than just ‘do time’ for a year on the African continent. While husband Patrick slips into routine at the hospital, Margaret begins to tentatively explore her new homeland, taking on a position as a photographer for a newspaper, as she struggles---along with fellow Kenyans---with understanding and dealing with major political changes in the country at the time.

Ms. Shreve's vivid descriptions of Margaret's world were sensory experiences that added depth to the story. I marvelled the breaktaking vista of Mt. Kenya, felt the dust of the savannah settle into the characters' clothes as they trekked through it, and was refreshed by cooling rains. When Margaret's visits to a local shanty town become more frequent, we both grow to appreciate the strength and beauty of its residents seemingly hidden in ramshacked, tin-covered shacks.

It’s been said that Ms. Shreve has a talent in revealing the intimate details of human relationships, and I’m inclined to agree. With events leading up to and beyond the accident, Margaret is forced to confront deeply hidden truths about herself, causing her to question everything and everyone she knows, including her marriage to Patrick. Travelling with Margaret on her journey was both painful and enlightening. There weren’t any easy answers to her questions or mine as I read, but then again, life doesn’t offer them either.

If you like your novels to challenge your perspective of relationships, I think it’s worth giving A Change in Altitude a look. And for more on the acclaimed author, please check out our interview with Ms. Shreve in the December 2009 newsletter.


LuAnn said...

I enjoyed your review of this book very much. I've read several of Shreve's novels and I always enjoy her work. Yes, she does write very intense stories about relationships and the various personalities of her characters. Indeed, they often aren't easy books to read, but that is what I like about them.

Jill said...

I'm discovering a growing appreciation for books that offer a challenge as I read, and as I wrote in the review, doesn't offer easy answers.

Thanks LuAnn!

Marci B said...

Loved your colorful and accurate review, Jill. You make the book come alive!
I have read all but two of Ms. Shreve's books, and was extremely disappointed that she took both characters and relationship situations from one of her previous novels, Weight of Water, to use in Change of Altitude.
I have always loved Ms. Shreve's work, but now, as a reader, I feel rather let down and a little resentful.
I am wondering if any other readers have had this same experience?
I do hope you will print this.

Thanks, Marci

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I wasn't a fan of this book. I did read Testimony and enjoyed that one, but this one just didn't do it for me. I had a difficult time connecting with the characters. I'm glad you were able to enjoy it though!

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