, Research Paper
For my second reading selection I chose Where or When, also written by Anita Shreve. There are two main characters, Charles and Sian. Charles sees Sian’s picture in the newspaper because she has just released another poetry book. They knew each other 31 years ago when they both attended a camp at The Ridge. Charles (known as Cal to Sian when they were younger) feels compelled to be reunited with her. They correspond with each other for a time and are reunited the Thursday following November 30, about two months from the first letter. Together they find what it is they thought they shared when they were 14 years old. There are many more complications now in their lives such as husbands, children, and tradition. They search for ways to overcome these problems and find the innocent bliss they once had reveled in. The struggle is not easy and ends unfortunately tragically.
There are two prominent female roles in this story, Sian and Charles’s wife, Harriet. Sian’s eyes “are nearly navy, with flecks of gold” (89) her skin is pale, and “there are wrinkles in the corners of her eyes and below them, her forehead unlined-high and white.” “She dresses in black, all the time, simple and straight, because then everything goes with everything. Her voice is deeper than she expected and she speaks slowly. She removes them from their case, clear glasses with thin wire frames, and puts them on. He did not know she wore glasses.”(90) “Her neck is long and white, there are small discoloration’s, like freckles but not, on the backs of her hands and inside the neckline of her blouse. Her nails are cut short, unpainted.”(92) “Her hair is loose and wavy; he remembers it as kind of pale bronze”(23) Sian is a professor and a poet, she has a few books out, this last one consisting of some thirty poems in a slim volume with a paper cover in a matte finish. She is married to a man named Stephen, and has only one child, a daughter Lilly, who is three years old. She, at one time had a son, “His name was Brian and was killed in a car accident six years ago when he was nine.”(97)
Sian’s attitude in general is guarded and throughout her life she appeared to not ever be truly happy. She wants to make the right choices regarding family matters. “I think I must have loved him in the beginning, it had been his reserve, his anomalous grace…”(59) “We can’t have done this.” (222) She always has “a hollow sensation…a certainty that I had failed with Stephen, a fear that my life would be defined by this missed connection. Stephen needed me to fill his emptiness”(59) Sian’s relationship is very removed from her husband and living a lifetime like this causes her guarded attitude. She lives in Pennsylvania with Stephen, on an onion farm. The landscape is black plains. Stephen and Sian don’t interact with each other much, each of them is wrapped up in what is happening in their own lives and they don’t share with one another. When they had the congratulation party for Sian after she came out with her book Stephen left the party and went the a bar to drink instead of celebrating with his wife. Stephen and Sian are middle working class. They both work very hard and the money from this very last book went to save the farm.
Charles wife, Harriet is a housewife. She takes care of their three children, does the baking, “mows the lawn, keeps the exterior tidy and painted.”(20) Harriet has “short, nearly black hair, and her jeans are tight along the back of her thighs. She has on an aqua sweater. She has plans for any given day and seldom deviates from them, she is almost never late, and at the end to the day can add up the experiences, the completed tasks and find among them some satisfaction.”(20; 29-31) Her attitude towards Charles is that of indifference. Although in some of the ways she acts it shows that she cares for his still. She reaches out for him when they are in bed “he feels then her fingers, her hand reaching for him.”(165) She gets angry when he is late returning from what should be just a short errand. Anger is sometimes based from fear. Harriet is seems to be well aware of what her marriage is like and what it’s lacking. This story is written from Charles and Sian’s perspective, so no real sense of what Harriet thought of herself is ever given. Their economic status is of upper-middle class. They live in Rhode Island near the water in a house that is “too grandiose and impractical.” (20) They are adding an addition to the house “that was to have been a new kitchen for Harriet then later become an office.”(20) Harriet seems to be more dependent, she doesn’t work and relies on Charles, whereas Sian is more independent, she takes care of herself, and Lilly and she works as a professor and author.
Since the main focus is about Sian the author is showing all dynamics of a woman. She is an individual who can support herself without the help of a man. She doesn’t just stay home; she has two jobs and is a very strong character type. She is still dealing with the loss of a son, a husband who isn’t happy with himself or his life and a farm that is falling apart. I don’t think the view on Sian in this book is anything but positive. What Sian and Charles are doing is not acceptable however. Cheating on your spouse under any circumstance, even a loveless, lifeless, relationship is not acceptable. Everyone deserves happiness and Charles and Sian feel that they don’t have that kind of happiness except when they are together. There are other measures both could have taken so as not to hurt their families in such the magnitude that is evident in the end. Sian has stepped out of the traditional role of women in a few aspects, she has two jobs, basically runs the household, brings in most of the income. In other aspects she does not have a possessive husband, in fact her husband never even carries on a conversation with her. He keeps to himself and never lets her in. The author is female; again this makes a difference because the female role is pivotal. She is in charge, she is strong-willed and not just the feeble female, granting her husbands wishes and desires.
The end of the book was quite dismal. Sian’s husband shoots himself in the arm; Charles hits a sheet of ice driving from the post office “the railing gives with ease, splintering into a thousand bits of wood. The Cadillac sails in a magnificent arc, a graceful arc, out towards Portugal.”(236) And so is the end of his life. “Timing is everything.”(236) The narrator is Sian but at times it takes on a third person he/she tome. Mostly it is Sian who is telling the story. Her point of view is used because in the end there is no one left to tell it. At other times it is omniscient. It is this way to show Charles inner thoughts that Sian could not have had access to.
I enjoyed this work of hers but to be quite honest I read it the same day I finished Strange Fits of Passion. That book was so good and it was still on my mind when I was reading Where or When that it took away from the story. By the time I got to the end I realized how good the story really was. Lots of times when I just finish a book I analyze the characters and contemplate what I would have done in a situation such as that. I feel sympathy and the other emotions that the person in this situation might be feeling. If it is a good book I become completely submerged in it. I can sit for hours until it is finished and then feel vacant because I wish that it could continue. This book raised the question in my mind about how you truly ever know that you are in love with a person. Perhaps Sian and Charles thought they were in love with each other because it was something new and exciting. What they had at home wasn’t all that they had hoped for and this was an escape. Prior to this there was no mention that they were planning on leaving their families and neither of them did for several months. Did they truly love one another or were they just trying to recapture their youth, a younger, more innocent and free time? The stories were both distinct and yet had may qualities that they shared. Both women were strong in their life situations, both had husbands less than adequate, though Mary did have it tougher, both are dealing with emotional strain and both took desperate actions that turned their lives around. There are many similarities in these books; the settings take place near an ocean in a New England town. The ending of this book couldn’t have been more suitable. It led up to this and was foreshadowed in their actions. Cheating, driving far distances to meet, secret phone calls and letters, lies to their families, this outcome was realistic and best suitable for this story.