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Anita Shreve: Bestselling author who scaled heights after endorsement from Oprah Winfrey

Anita Shreve was the American writer who explored themes of love, loss and betrayal in bestselling works of fiction. Her 1998 novel, The Pilot’s Wife, sold millions of copies after Oprah Winfrey chose it for her television book club.

Shreve, who died of breast cancer aged 71, was a teacher, journalist and nonfiction author before she began to focus on fiction in her early forties. She went on to publish 18 novels, which became fixtures of countless book groups, attracting a large and loyal following.

Many of Shreve’s novels were set in New England and touched on subjects as diverse as plane crashes, textile mills and the Second World War. Her books seldom had happy endings, but all of them shared an irresistible page-turning quality, with a strong emotional undercurrent, often coloured by death and romance.

Critics were not always kind but readers adored Shreve’s books.

“Her secret,” Washington Post journalist Zofia Smardz wrote in 2002, “is that she simply has the Gift – the ability to hook you from the first page, draw you in and pull you along, though you may kick and scream, and not let go until the final word.”

Shreve’s first major bestseller came in 1997, with The Weight of Water. A photojournalist travels to an island off the coast of New England to examine the mystery of a 19th-century double murder as her marriage unravels. The novel was made into a movie in 2000, directed by Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow and starring Sean Penn and Elizabeth Hurley.

Shreve said her writing was often inspired by old houses: “A house with any kind of age has dozens of stories to tell,” she said. One Victorian-era house on the Maine coast became practically a living character in several novels.

“At first, all I wanted to do was live there,” she said in 2002. “Then, at a party, I overheard a snippet of conversation about an airline crash, and I began to imagine the pilot’s wife. And there was this one split second in time when that idea came together with the house.”

The novel that emerged was The Pilot’s Wife, which begins with a knock on the door, as a woman is told that her husband, an airline pilot, has been killed in a midair explosion off the coast of Ireland.

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Elizabeth Hurley in ‘The Weight of Water’ (StudioCanal)

She later learns that her husband has led a double life, with a mistress in another country, among other secrets. The airliner accident may have been a deliberate act of sabotage.

When Oprah Winfrey selected The Pilot’s Wife for her reading club, it instantly became the number one seller in the US. Shreve appeared on Winfrey’s television show, along with several women whose husbands led hidden lives.

“Each story was much worse than anything I’d written,” Shreve later said. “Real life is invariably worse than novels.”

More than 3 million copies of The Pilot’s Wife were sold, and Shreve wrote the screenplay for a 2002 TV movie starring Christine Lahti and Campbell Scott.

Shreve’s other works included Fortune’s Rocks (1999), a story of illicit love at the turn of the 20th century; The Last Time They Met (2001), about two writers who rekindle their passion after long absences; and her final novel, The Stars Are Fire (2017), set against the backdrop of a 1947 forest fire in Maine.

Another of her books, 1995’s Resistance, about a Belgian woman who rescues a US pilot in the Second World War, was made into 2003 film of the same name starring Bill Paxton and Julia Ormond.

Shreve was sometimes criticised for overwrought writing – a sip from a water glass practically comes with a soundtrack: “His hand trembled in its epic progress from the table to the mouth” – and she especially resented the notion that the recurring theme of doomed romance limited her appeal solely to women.

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Anita Shreve’s ‘The Pilot’s Wife’

“Love is a very devalued subject to be writing about these days,” she told the Boston Globe in 1998. “It’s hard for me to imagine what is more serious to write about: how it affects people right down to their soul, how it affects their families, how it affects their future.”

Anita Hale Shreve was born in Boston and grew up in Dedham, Massachusetts. Her father was an airline pilot, her a mother a homemaker.

She graduated from Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1968, then taught high school English for five years. She published short stories before working as a journalist in Kenya and later in New York.

She contributed to magazines, co-wrote three books on childcare and published two books on women’s issues, Remaking Motherhood, about working mothers, and Women Together, Women Alone: the Legacy of the Consciousness-Raising. Her first novel, Eden Close, came out in 1989.

Shreve was almost secretive about her personal life. Her husband, Osborn, said in an interview that he did not know the names of two of her three previous husbands.

He and Shreve first met at a summer camp as teenagers, then reunited decades later after he saw her picture in a newspaper and wrote her a letter. She drew on their story for her 1993 novel, Where or When.

In addition to her husband, survivors include two children from her marriage to John Clemans, three stepdaughters, two sisters and three grandchildren.

​Shreve composed her novels in longhand, building one sentence on top of another, much like the sturdy houses she so admired.

“Honora sets the cardboard suitcase on the slab of granite,” she wrote at the opening of her 2002 novel, Sea Glass. “The door is mackereled, paint-chipped – green or black, it is hard to tell. Above the knocker, there are panes of glass, some broken and others opaque with age … She peers at the letter ‘B’ carved into the knocker and thinks, ‘This is the place where it all begins.’”

Anita Shreve, American writer, born 7 October 1946, died 29 March 2018

© The Washington Post


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