Over the course of several novels, Shreve has imagined a long history for one house in New Hampshire. It was home to Olympia Biddeford in Fortune’s Rocks, Honora Beecher in Sea Glass, Kathryn Lyons in The Pilot’s Wife and, for one fateful summer, Sydney Sklar in Body Surfing. A house with any age to it will have seen many families pass through its doors—new babies asleep in the bedrooms, spouses arguing in the kitchen, young adults leaving the nest through the front door. Shreve uses the décor to reveal not only her heroine’s personality, but also the texture of her family. The home becomes a reflection of the characters.
Fortune’s Rocks gives us the house’s earliest incarnation. Rosamund Biddeford’s rooms are decorated entirely in hues of blue, a symbol of her isolation from the world. Her rooms are more ornate than the rest of the rather austere house, indicating not only femininity, but also the delicacy of her constitution. In contrast, Rosamund’s husband Phillip fills his office with masculine trinkets from around the world including a malachite paperweight from East Africa, a bejeweled cross from Prague, and a stained ivory letter opener from Madagascar. Shreve contrasts the ways that women and men view the world based on the items they hold dear. Olympia, their daughter, is caught between the two worlds, and as a result is not sure which room she prefers.
Body Surfing is set in the present day, and in the story the house is owned by the Edwards family. Anna Edwards is concerned with appearances and can be a tad judgmental. She has well-defined expectations for her children. She religiously counts her carbs. It thus makes sense that she has chosen white sofas. This aesthetic complements her desire for control and perfection, even though the realities of life at the beach have left the sofas with faint smudges and worried stains. Her husband, Mark, is more nurturing. He made the walnut dining table around which the family gathers. His thriving rose garden in front of the house is bursting with colors—rust, lavender, mauve, and ivory. The table and garden reflect the care he puts into his family as well as the artistic streak that serves him well as an architect. Just when the reader might suspect that this couple has nothing in common, their bedroom offers a clue that their passion has not dulled over decades together. The room is large enough to accommodate a king-sized bed, but the couple continues to share a full.
The Biddefords and the Edwardses are rather conventional families: a mother, a father, and offspring. This is not always the case in Shreve’s work. Often the families she creates are not traditional, and they are often fractured. In Sea Glass, Honora takes Alphonse under her wing, adopting him as the child she never had. In Light on Snow, Nicky Dillon imagines that Charlotte, a total stranger, might be able to fill the void left by her mother’s death simply by arriving on her doorstep. In A Wedding in December, the characters formed a family while at boarding school. Their 25th reunion shows just how deeply they continue to have an impact on each other even if they are not a constant presence in each other’s adult lives. Unfulfilled desires and powerful memories of the past can forge a family just as strong as one held together by blood ties.