It's the end of the 1920s and New Englanders Honora and Sexton, newlyweds of modest means and a reluctant sort of love, buy their first home on the eve of Black Tuesday.
This is the pretense of the plot of "Sea Glass," but the story proceeds to lightly sketch an array of characters, all overshadowed by the impeding stock market crash, which looms like a tidal wave in early chapters and engulfs all later action.
Through tempered but quieting storytelling, Anita Shreve casts a gentle light on a period so dark for so many. She has managed to create an easily digestible glimpse of the Great Depression as experienced by an eclectic cast of characters.
Besides Honora and Sexton, a typewriter salesman, there is the independently wealthy, flapper-type Vivian, who is one of the few characters to have experienced anything like the Roaring '20s lifestyle before the crash. Also, there are the overworked and underpaid mill workers, the union organizers and the token communist. Finally, there's the French-Canadian boy, Alphonse, who has dropped out of school to work in the town's cotton mill.
Shreve has carefully crafted the plot around the real circumstances some faced during the Depression, yet the characters sometimes appear to have been molded to fit into the fictionalized historical framework.
But this cautious approach is given life by Shreve's brief, interchanging focus among the brightly contrasting characters. The narrative perspective shifts every few pages, with each section named for a character: "Honora," "Sexton," "McDermott," "Vivian" and so on.
The reality of disappointment and struggle is steeply foreshadowed from the start. When Honora first sees her future husband early in the book, her impression of his appearance is heavily seasoned with doubt:
"His forehead was awfully high, and when he smiled, his teeth were slightly crooked. Honora laid these flaws aside as one might overlook a small stain on a beautifully embroidered tablecloth one wanted to buy, only later to discover, when it was on the table and all the guests were seated around it, that the stain had become a beacon, while the beautiful embroidery lay hidden in everybody's laps."
Honora's thoughts on her future in general are just as keen early on: "What she feels along her shoulders, she realizes, is a hunching against impending disaster."
The book's title comes from Honora's hobby of collecting glass from the beach behind her home. But due to the thick foreshadowing, the use of sea glass as a metaphor for the scattered pieces of shattered lives is a bit heavy-handed; the many passages spent on these descriptions are the least interesting aspect of the book.
Already melded by Shreve's svelte narration and apparent empathy for lives intertwined by struggle, "Sea Glass" would stand, even without the shards.