Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Testimony by Anita Shreve (a review)

Testimony by Anita ShreveFirst off, I must say right away that Anita Shreve is one of my favourite authors. Although I have only read half of her 14 novels so far, the ones I had read before Testimony fall into two categories: those I loved, own and will probably reread at some point (The Pilot’s Wife, The Weight of Water, Fortune’s Rocks and The Last Time They Met) and those I enjoyed but probably wouldn’t read again and therefore don’t own (All He Ever Wanted and Light on Snow). Unfortunately, Testimony fits into a new and disappointing category of its own, as it is the first Shreve novel I haven’t enjoyed.

Testimony begins with a headmaster at a private school in Vermont viewing a videotape of sexual acts involving four students: three young men of 18 or 19 and a 14-year old girl. The story is told in a multiplicity of voices, from the students involved to their parents, teachers and various other members of the community. It felt like the first half of the book circled around and around the event, jumping from one character to the next as well as back and forth through time without actually getting any closer to the specifics of what had happened that fateful night or why. I found this part of the book hard to get into and sometimes confusing. None of the characters came across as very sympathetic, or rather the revolving narration kept me at arms’ length from all of them. About 150 pages in, I seriously contemplated abandoning the book. However, something shifted around that point. From then on, all the narratives seemed to zero in on the videotaped event in a much more linear fashion and a couple of the characters clearly emerged as sympathetic. My favourite passages are those written from Noelle’s point of view; her descriptions of her evolving relationship with Silas are tender and moving. The ending of the book was satisfying up to a point, but I was still left feeling a bit cold about the whole thing.

Besides the structure of the book, what disappointed me the most about this novel is that Shreve failed to explore the girl’s motivations or back story in any way. Instead, she is basically portrayed as the anonymous catalyst for the ruin of many other lives. It didn’t feel like her life—what little we knew of it—was changed very drastically by this otherwise momentous event.

Overall, I felt very meh about this book. I highly recommend you pick up one of Shreve’s earlier novels instead.

I realize that in not liking this novel I am very much in the minority. It has been (almost) universally praised on book blogs. To read much more favourable reviews, visit the following sites:
At Home with BooksBermudaonion’s WeblogBookfanBooking MamaBooks and CooksBreaking the SpineCaribousmomLinus’s BlanketPeeking Between the PagesReader for LifeRedlady’s Reading RoomToday’s Adventure

The only other review I could find that comes close to expressing my feelings about this novel was published in The Los Angeles Times. Be forewarned, however, that it contains spoilers.

Another less-than-favourable review (though for different reasons) can be found on Kim’s blog, I Smell Books.

Edited to add other less-than-favourable reviews:
Book AddictionBooksPleaseDiary of an EccentricFeminist ReviewGirls Just Reading

Thank you to Hachette for sending me this book to review.


  1. Thanks for the link. I liked this book and lent it to a friend. She said she couldn't finish it because she found the topic upsetting.

  2. Good call on the possible spoiler alert, i'll be reading this soon and don't want to see any spoilers! That's a bummer you didn't like it! :( I haven't read any of her books yet but I have this and Body Surfing to give a whirl!

  3. I have had mixed feelings over some of her books. I however loved Light on Snow and find it to be one of my more favorites of hers. The reason? It ended on a hopeful note where most of her others seem to be a bit depressing.
    Great review and thanks for visiting my blog last week. I am behind in making the rounds!

  4. You're welcome, Kathy. Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood for this book, but it really didn't work for me. I didn't really find it upsetting, though.

    Alea, well, regardless of how you feel about this one, I'd recommend you read some of her earlier stuff! I also have a couple of her other books on my shelves to read (though not Body Surfing yet). I'm kinda feeling like I want to read something else by her soon, since this one disappointed me (if that makes any sense!).

    Kim, I actually don't remember feeling like any of her other books were depressing. I do have to read another one soon! (See my comment to Alea.) Thanks for visiting my blog too!

  5. Of course now i can't remember what any of the other one's are about! But i guess i picked up Body Surfing because it sounded most interesting. What would be your top two suggestions?

  6. I think my favourites so far are The Pilot's Wife and Fortune's Rocks. I love novels about secrets (The Pilot's Wife) and Fortune's Rocks is quite an unusual historical romance (elements of the romance being the unusual part). I must confess, however, that I don't remember either of them super well (which is due to my faulty memory and not to any fault of the books themselves).

  7. Avis, thanks for the link. While I did like the book I did agree on the point of not really getting to know any of the characters well enough to my liking. I would have liked to see more of a back story also. You know you don't always have to like a book someone else did-we all have different things that we may or may not like about a book. I also agree with that many other of Shreve's works were better than this one.

  8. I'll have to relook into those! Thanks!

    I think i'm going into the book thinking of it as a case, and not so much about the people, maybe that will help me not be disappointed by not knowing the characters very well.

  9. Thank you, Dar! I just find it hard to be on my own in disliking a book; the same thing happened when I reviewed Aberrations. This is of course an issue I have in general, not just with reviewing books: I'm much happier blending in with the crowd. However, I do feel like I have to be as honest as possible in my reviews, otherwise what's the point of writing them?

    Alea, I'll be keeping an eye out for your review!

  10. I was also less than impressed with Testimony. The only other book of hers I had read was The Pilots Wife which I loved, but this one was entirely different in the way it was written and the character development. I agree, I was bummed there wasn't more on Sienna and Noelle was my other favorite character, but there was just so much left unsaid and unresolved. It was sad.

    My review is at www.ismellbooks.blogspot.com

    Thanks for your honesty!

  11. I can understand what you mean about the character of Sienna - I also wish we knew more about her. But then, I think we might have had more sympathy for her which I believe Shreve didn't want the reader to have. I know I felt strange having more compassion for everyone else compared to her - when would that ever happen? I appreciate your honesty. By the way, The Last Time They Met Drove me nuts! The ending...

  12. I'm glad you shared your thoughts on this book even though you really didn't care for it. I've read a few of her books and liked them for the most part, Sea Glass and The Pilot's Wife I will admit are my favorites. I just try to remember that I'm not going to like every book I read...but someone else out there is going to like it for some reason. I would think the content of this book is a bit too risque for a few people that I know, but I will still probably try to read this one just because of the controversy. Thanks again!

  13. Kim, thanks for pointing out your review; I somehow missed it in my search for other reviews of this book. I've linked to it in mine now. I must admit that I was surprised by the graphic description of what's happening on the video, although it didn't disturb me that much to read it.

    Tara, I find it interesting that you said that Shreve didn't want us to have more sympathy for Sienna. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to feel sympathy for her or not. (If not, why the heck not?) About The Last Time They Met, I can see why you would feel that way. I'm not sure actually that I would reread that book; it's so sad.

    Jo-Jo, I recently discovered that I had two copies of Sea Glass (I gave my second copy to a friend). Based on your recommendation, I'm thinking I should try it next. Thanks for your comments on my review!

  14. I felt much the same as you about Testimony. The beginning of the book made me wonder if I was really reading an Anita Shreve book. I haven't written about it on my blog yet so I won't say any more here.

    I was a bit disappointed with Body Surfing too but it grew on me as I read it. My favourite books of hers are Fortunes Rocks, The Last Time They Met, The Pilot's Wife and Eden Close - quite a few really.

  15. thanks for the review. I've had this one on my shelf for a while now and can't decide if I'm going to get to it or not. I was worried it would be as you described. I don't think your spoiler alert contained any spoilers though. :-) the book is based on a scandal at my husband's old high school so i was interested for that reason alone. :-)

  16. Great review! I firmly believe that each and every book is going to have people who love it and people who don't! I like to read book reviews for both views!!

    :) Wendi

  17. Avis, I DO agree that it was hard to feel like I knew the characters and so many, I didn't like. Noelle was my favorite though!

    I'll add your link to my review next time I log in to my blog manager!


  18. I've read Light on Snow but I don't really remember much about it. There are a ton of reviews about this one though!

  19. Now I am excited to check out some of Shreve's other work since you didn't like this one but have like others. I agree that Noelle's relationship with Silas was touching. I knew from the beginning where his part of the story was going. I thought Shreve communicated a lot from the present with their story.

  20. wow I really loved this novel. I guess it didn't bother me that the girl's POV wasn't prevalent.

  21. I'm looking forward to reading your review, BooksPlease! Our favourites overlap, except for Eden Close, which I haven't read yet.

    Marie, I didn't realize this novel was based on actual events. I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on it too, if you do read it eventually!

    Thanks, Wendy. I agree and I also like to read negative reviews, even of books I loved. Often I wind up agreeing with some aspect of the negative points; it's just that the positive took precedence for me. (Not always, obviously. Sometimes I think the reviewer has completely missed the point or the book's style just wasn't for them.)

    Thanks, Shana!

    Do read something else by her, Nicole!

    Whereas for me, Serena, this was the biggest problem with the book, other than its structure!

  22. Sorry, Ladytink, I skipped over your comment by mistake! As I mentioned in my review, I'd recommend you read one of her earlier books instead of this one...

  23. This is in my TBR pile. I've read all of Anita Shreve's books and loved them, so I'm hoping I enjoy this one, too. I appreciate your honest review!

    Diary of an Eccentric

  24. Thanks, Anna! I do hope you enjoy it more than I did...

  25. Ok so as you know I was really excited to read this! I started it and the first 40 or so pages were just kind of blah, so I put it down and read another book. Came back to it and ever since I've just been devouring it! I have 60 pages left. This rotating perspective thing is really cool, for awhile I had to re-remember who everyone was though!

  26. I'm glad to hear you're enjoying it, Alea, and my review didn't spoil it for you! (Don't forget to read the possible spoiler when you're done -- I'd love to hear your thoughts on that). I'm looking forward to reading your review!

  27. I definitely will read it and comment! One thing was just revealed that made me say "Ah...", love the whole chain of events!

  28. It's interesting to me that this is one of my two most-commented-upon reviews (and the other was The Heretic's Daughter, which folks commented on in great part because that gave them an extra entry in my giveaway for that book).


    Ok i finished it! I do think it would have been good to hear more from all of those involved. But I do like how it played out in the end, hearing from someone that was silent throughout the rest of the book. One thing that bothered me... i wanted Noelle to know why Silas was in the state he was in. She didn't know did she?

    I guess to me the girl seemed kind of neglected by her parents and got it in her head to chase after boys and that's what she did. And then when she found out how much trouble it caused she played the victim card. I don't think any of them were innocent and none of them were to blame either. It was a collective bad move.

  30. I'm glad you enjoyed this book more than I did, Alea. I gotta admit that our email discussion (which followed your last comment) has made me want to tweak my review, which so far I'm resisting doing (because I'm thinking I like this book even less now!).

  31. A more than fair review, Avis, even if I did "like" the book more than you did. Yes, I put "like" in quotes because it was not a pleasant read!

    I really appreciated the way Shreve wrote from different perspectives. I think, from what I've read elsewhere, that her focus is on Mike and the supposed cover-up attempt (not Sienna's backstory).

    You did a great job explaining what you didn't like about the book, and putting it in the greater perspective of the other Shreve books you've read. I didn't know she has written 14 novels! And, I'd love to hear more about the inspiration for the novel, from Marie's comment.

  32. I found the style refreshing...writing each chapter from a different point of view. This book was a good, quick read. It really makes you think how one bad decision can impact so many people.