Two on One: Fortune’s Rocks by Anita Shreve

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Two on One    

Off-Shore Romance

by Virginia Heffernan and Mike Albo

THE SETUP: In the windy beachsides of New Hampshire at the turn of the century, Olympia, a brilliant girl, falls in love with John Haskell, a child labor reformer. The girl is fifteen, Haskell is forty-five, and their erotic affair starts a tragic chain of events that leads young Olympia to learn more about (what else?) life.

HEFFERNAN: Let’s start with the setting. I grew up in New Hampshire, and it’s not a sexy state. Then again, I don’t really know the coastal parts.

ALBO: But there were always those tan Tretorn guys who come for tennis camp, weren’t there? And you probably spent your teen years dreaming of Waspy doctor men like Haskell and getting all shivery in your Forenza sweaters.

HEFFERNAN: I definitely would have been into his child labor thing.

ALBO: And I would have loved to make out with him in that creaky hotel.

HEFFERNAN: It’s impressive how good you are at wringing a real fantasy out of two dry beans of erotica. But I’m glad you said it. We can’t pretend we’re above this book. I mean, come on, you made a Fortune’s Rocks theme MiniDisc for us to listen to while we read, complete with that Lush song “Olympia.” And I was drawn into the seabreeze of her opening masturbation scene, when she has to squeeze her thighs together to mash down her bliss on the sea wall.

ALBO: I do have to say I was a bit disappointed when I found out that, beyond that, there wasn’t much sex in this book. Even the sex scenes that do turn up aren’t really that hornerific. You never even get a good description of John Haskell’s body. At least in Shreve’s last book, The Pilot’s Wife, there are all those hardcore fantasies of adulterous sex. Here, when they finally do get down, Haskell is described as tugging on his cufflinks, laying down beside little Olympia — and then it flashes forward to a post-coital scene where she is wiping blood from her thighs. What woman just wants to read the part about the guy handing the girl a towel?

HEFFERNAN: Yeah, that was pretty bad. I think we can comfortably conclude from Fortune’s Rocks that women like to read about “black wool challis skirts” and “topaz sateen puffs.” And they like their porn beyond mild — like that scene when Haskell touches Olympia’s chin — which I actually liked. I love it when someone tips your chin up to get a better look at you. It’s kind of unnerving but great to be looked at that closely.

ALBO: You are so Men-Mars-Women-Venus. I like a good story filled with vaguely erotic breezes too, but this book doesn’t really deliver that. The book jacket, which calls their affair “unthinkable, torturous and passionate,” makes you think this is going to be To The Lighthouse on Viagra, but it’s more like Guiding Light in petticoats. All I took away from the book was that the whole old man/young woman, Michael Douglas/Catherine Zeta-Jones dynamic has ceased being an attention-getting subject for America, and has just become a kind of trashy trope.

HEFFERNAN: I love the idea of Shreve wondering, Should Haskell be twice Olympia’s age? No, three times her age. That’s part of the Shreve Value-Pak. But Olympia’s not so naïve when it comes to that morning with the towel, she pretty much drives the affair with her precocious gift for “passion” (which must be the most abstract euphemism ever for a blowjob, or did I just not understand that scene?). Oh, yeah — that brings me to the amazing fact that all the friction between Olympia and Haskell dissolves after the novel’s first half. The love story becomes a custody battle — who can forget little Pierre and his sad eyes in the courtroom? — and an effort at a rebound with the preppie lawyer, Tucker.

ALBO: Like everything else in this book, that scenario was totally inevitable. Of course, she was going to rebound with Tucker after her affair and banishment from Fortune’s Rocks. He’s definitely the guy you’re going to rebound to after fucking the love of your life: cute, bland, good job, slightly boring. Also, I’d like to point out that once again we have a character like Zacharia Cote, the sneaky, self-serving, gossipy poet who evilly exposes Haskell and Olympia’s frottage-fest to wife Catherine. He is barely fleshed out, but using my well-honed literary gaydar, I would say we have here another minor gay character in fiction who helps the plot along by puckishly conniving and snickering, conspiring with his sissy hands to create everyone’s doom in Straightland. He follows nicely in the tradition of Mr. Ripley, Rosier in Portrait of a Lady and that simpering homo in Tender is the Night.

HEFFERNAN: Nice Queer Studies revival point. I like how, in sentimental fiction, the obstacle between the lovers always has to be an actual character. A couple’s separation is always blamed on a vile side-presence, instead of in creepy naturalistic novels actually written during this novel’s time period, like Dreisers’, where everyone has so many internal demons, and everything falls apart. I hate it when people have internal demons.

ALBO: I wish someone would finally just try to describe how complicated and impossibly, selfishly vague love is. I had fantasies halfway through this book that Haskell was going to just sort of drift away from Olympia and not answer her little letters, and just say, “Oh, hey Olympia, what’s up?” when he saw her — just like real life. Even still, my little fun friend, I did like this book, because it was fun reading it with you, and because it took me two seconds to read it and that never happens. I usually just fall asleep and drool all over myself when I open a book.

HEFFERNAN: Basically, it’s just great when reading is easy and when love isn’t that hard in the end.

©2000 Virginia Heffernan,