When Margaret and Patrick begin a new life in Africa, she views the move as a unique opportunity. As a physician, Patrick is soon absorbed with his research, so it is merely by happenstance that Margaret stumbles upon a new home when her Peugeot breaks down on the side of the road.
An English expat couple, Arthur and Diana, have a small guest cottage on their property, a charming place that Patrick and Margaret are happy to move into. Next on the agenda with their new landlords: a trek up Mt. Kenya, a challenge both couples embrace with enthusiasm. None suspects the tragedy that awaits.
After that misguided and traumatic adventure, Patrick and Margaret find their relationship spinning into a dangerous milieu, unspoken resentments threatening the very foundation of their marriage, their reason for being together. This is definitely Shreve territory, the treacherous relationships between men and women, the pride and willfulness that poison even the best of intentions.
Shreve tackles this particular complicated story in a nuanced rendering of the fragility of shared lives and expectations. Bright, hopeful Margaret is thrown into confusion, the security of her married life at risk as well as her sense of self. For all the vivid colors and traditions of Africa, what is meant to be a happy beginning is sidetracked by tragedy.
Margaret’s sense of self shaken, she searches for validation as a woman. The couple goes on, hoping that time will heal the chasm that has opened between them. But perhaps, in this exotic place, such a shift is too dramatic to survive. A new marriage requires time and mutual experience to learn the lessons of forgiveness and tolerance. After the accident on the climb up Mt. Kenya, Margaret and Patrick do not have that luxury.
Shreve excels at portraying the interior life of a woman beset by unexpected events and her inability to cope with or mitigate the damage. The ascent up the mountain and the accident are horrifying, the reader caught up in the excitement and danger of such an enterprise. I was riveted by the first half of the novel, unable to put it down. Though a bit anticlimactic after the tragedy, Margaret’s emotional journey is compelling, if loaded with land mines along the way.
The location of the story projects it into an unfamiliar environment, Africa a vast canvas where Margaret must redefine herself, her marriage, and her future. Like an aftershock after an earthquake, this story keeps delivering blows, some permanent, as Shreve’s protagonist pays the terrible price of one moment’s minor indiscretion. Small victories are hard-won, and Margaret clings to the power of the moment as the world spins out of control around her: “Now you are just all right.”