A few months after the tragedy of 9/11, people still reeling from the event, a group of former high school friends gather for Bill and Bridgetís wedding, former sweethearts who are getting married at Nora Laskiís luxurious country inn. Widow of the poet Carl Laski, Nora has refurbished the inn after her much older husbandís death, restoring it to its former architectural splendor.
All these years later, the combination wedding-reunion is still shadowed by the premature death of one of the friends: Noraís high school boyfriend, Stephen, who died before graduation. Haunted by Stephenís demise, the friends have never really resolved their feelings about their lost classmate, going their separate ways after graduation, pursuing personal goals. Agnes, whom the others view as a spinster, is now a teacher at the academy they attended. Agnes secretly nurtures her own secret, one she desperately wants to share with the others but is terrified of revealing.
Trapped by the consequences of their own choices, the freedoms of high school seem rich in retrospect. Nora and Harrison, in particular, have unresolved issues to occupy their thoughts - the roads not taken, Stephenís untimely death, Bill and Bridgetís marriage as the bride-to-be is beginning treatment for breast cancer, Harrisonís unremitting passion for Nora in spite of his marriage and children, wife and sons incidental to this recaptured moment.
The varied personal dramas are relieved by alternating chapters of a story Agnes is writing about the Halifax explosion of 1917, when two ships collided, one of them carrying explosives, resulting in a terrible concussion that killed over two thousand, slivers of glass blinding many others. The shock and devastation of the Halifax incident perfectly parallels the recent horrors of 9/11; although Agnesí story is fictional, the event is not, the reaction of stunned citizens similar, the walking wounded stumbling aimlessly through the debris.
Between the history of Halifax and that of the former friends gathered for the wedding weekend, Shreve skillfully mixes the narratives of past and present to explore the complexities of relationships that have changed significantly over the years for some and not at all for others. Without doubt, Shreve is a talented storyteller, especially when blending narratives, although this one evokes images of The Big Chill redux.
My one problem with the novel is the emphasis on the charactersí collective high school experiences, as though these individuals were mature enough to engage in the romantic partnering and drinking in late adolescence, eventually leading some of them to life changes after many years, emotionally vulnerable through the authorís somewhat contrived use of 9/11.
That issue aside, the author evokes the regrets of past and present, both through the main storyline and the Halifax thread, a growing desperation for more fulfilling lives, a few high school friends disenchanted by the choices they have made, the future looming on the horizon.