A Change In Altitude, by Anita Shreve – Book Review

A Change in Altitude, Anita Shreve

Margaret and Patrick fly to Kenya with the expectation of an exciting adventure. They have been married for a few short months and Patrick, who has been granted permission to conduct his studies in Kenya in exchange for operating free clinics across the country, is a doctor researching equatorial diseases.  Margaret is more at loose ends in her role as photographer.  She has yet to find work or much else to occupy her time.  The couple has settled into a small cottage on the grounds of a larger estate and become friendly with the British couple Roger and Diana, who own it and live in the larger main house some short distance away.  The couples are quickly pushed into close quarters when Margaret and Patrick stay with Roger and Diane for a number of days while plumbing repairs are being made to their cottage.

While Patrick settles into a routine with minimal effort, Margaret is uneasy and conflicted about life in Kenya.  She sees the beauty of the Kenyan countryside and sets to work improving her photography skills by taking pictures, but she also encounters the poverty of Kenya’s inhabitants.  She sees the disparity between the indigenous tribes who have serious conflicts with each other, and who in addition suffer under a different standard of living and status in society, which is imposed upon them by the Dutch and the British upon whom they often are dependent upon for work. Margaret is uncomfortable with their hosts and their role in society, disturbed by the ease with which they employ domestic help and how they treat them.  When Roger and Diana invite them on a climb of Mount Kenya, she and Patrick are initially intrigued by the possibilities, but Margaret is the least experienced and the least excited about climbing the mountain, even though even she can’t foresee the changes that will take place in her marriage as a result of the arduous climb.

I was captured by A Change In Altitude and its complexities right from the beginning.  Anita Shreve has the wonderful talent of being able to capture the smallest moment in a life and track how that moment leads to a myriad of answering reactions, unforeseen developments and consequences.  Whether or not we think we are, we speak with our actions. Initially I was at a loss to see where she was going with the tenuous relationships between the couples, but it was worthwhile to see what developed and how Patrick and Margaret try to change to suit the new circumstances in their brief marriage.  While Margaret’s point of view is constantly considered in the unfolding of the story, and Patrick’s has to reveal itself through Margaret’s observations, it is easy to see that both are working on maintaining their connection as much as they can within their own limitations as people and under the pressure of living in a foreign country which is dramatically different from their own.

The description of Kenyan culture and politics woven in the story held my attention and gave me a lot consider.  I loved the way Shreve used secondary characters James and Adiahambo to give a face to some of the issues in the country, and it was interesting to see the ways that Margaret sheds some of her inertia and chooses to become involved in their lives.  Margaret is looking to find her way, and though I was sometimes baffled at her choices her story was hard for me to put down.


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I picked this book up as an experiment of sorts.  I wanted to see if I could get through an entire book without reading any description of it at all, which is very difficult for me to do.  As readers we usually choose a book by reading descriptions and recommendations and in some sense already feeling like we know what the story is about. I wanted to see how I would feel having no idea of what the story was about or what was coming next.

Anita Shreve was the perfect pick for me because I really enjoyed Testimony last year, and while I knew that I liked her writing, I had no idea that she had a new book out until I saw it.  So I bought it without knowing a thing about it.  It was a nice experience to watch a book unfold and not have any idea of what is coming next besides what I am able to glean from reading the actual story and not a description or a blurb.  Have you tried that before?   How did it work out for you?  I am looking forward to doing this again with another author.

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  1. I am a pretty big Anita Shreve fan — I’ve read all of not almost all of her books. I have this one sitting in my pile — my soon to read one, not the huge one. I think I’ll enjoy it because I have a feeling we tend to agree about books!
    .-= Julie P.´s last blog ..Mother Daughter Book Club # 15 =-.

    1. Margaret was definitely and interesting character and I thought exploring a new marriage in such a different environment was intriguing. I’ll be curious to see what you think.

  2. Beautiful review! I read this book as well, but I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as you did. I liked Margaret’s character development and the descriptions of Africa, but I never got past Margaret and Patrick’s tenuous releationship, as you did. Your review has made me think about my interpretation though!
    .-= S. Krishna´s last blog ..Casting Off – Nicole Dickson =-.

    1. I wondered what their marriage would have looked like had they not been in Kenya. That was definitely an adjustment. There was definitely a lot of food for thought with Kenyan politics and the people.

  3. Wonderful review. I’ll have to pick this up; after Testimony, I definitely want to read more of her books.

    Yes, I have read many books without knowing a thing. I love doing that, of not having any clue what may happen. I never read introductions or prefaces until I’ve finished the book.
    .-= Beth F´s last blog ..Challenge: 100 Miles =-.

  4. I really, really have to read not only A Change in Altitude but anything by Shreve. I have no idea what I’m waiting for. I think that your review might just spur me into action here 🙂
    .-= lilly´s last blog ..To Serve Them All My Days by R.F. Delderfield =-.

    1. This is my second book by her. I also read Testimony and I think I liked this one better out of the two. I liked having Kenya in the mix.

  5. I too loved Testimony. It really messed with my head, but that is a sign of a great author! I am TERRIBLE about reading synopsis and spoilers. Even when a blogger makes you highlight over something to read the spoiler, I do. I just can’t help myself. But to read something cold is wonderful. It is such a joy having the story unfold with surprises around every corner!
    .-= Sandy´s last blog ..Monday Movie Meme – Dear Old Dad =-.

    1. I’m pretty bad too. I always want to know, but with authors that I know I love, I am going to try to read them cold. It was such a treat.

  6. I’m really looking forward to reading this book. I think you’re right – Anita Shreve is so good and showing what our actions say about us and how they affect others. The setting sounds wonderful too.
    .-= Kathy´s last blog ..Mailbox Monday =-.

    1. She really is. And it’s little stuff that’s so revealing but also easily overlooked until something else happens and you start thinking about in a completely different light.

  7. I think it’s a good idea to at least know that you’ll like the author’s writing if you’re going to go without reading a description first. Before college I used to pretty much pick up stuff at the library and read it based on the title and the cover (although I did usually read the blurb on the back). I have read a few books lately without really reading any reviews or summaries first and have enjoyed them much more that way. It is nice to be surprised by the plot.

    1. I was really surprised by the plot. There was a lot going on so I didn’t quite know which would be “the thing” so I was definitely in the dark for a bit.

  8. I have this book in my pile to read this month. I have never read anything by Anita Shreve so I’m looking forward to exploring a new author. I like your idea of not reading anything about the story before starting but now that I’ve read your review I can’t claim that. Oh well, next time.
    .-= Margot´s last blog ..Book Review: True Blue =-.

    1. Yes, next time! If you like her, then you can try it with a different book of hers. I would definitely say do it with an author you have a reasonably good chance of enjoying.

    1. I like Testimony a lot too. I think one of the only reason I liked this one better is because I was fascinated by Kenya and the aspect it brought to the book and Patrick and Margaret’s marriage. Not to mention the fact that it was just interesting.

  9. Great review! I think I only ever read a book without reading its description when it’s an author I really enjoy – and usually, it’s a series book, so I’m already familiar with the continuing characters. I’m trying to think of an author that I do this with, who doesn’t write series books. Barbara Michaels is one (I enjoy the different series she writes as Elizabeth Peters, too). Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another non-series author I’ll read description-unseen – there must be more, though!
    .-= Belle´s last blog ..My Favorite Book Hooks =-.

    1. It’s hard to do it. I always want o know things before I know them. LOL. If there’s anything I want to do I want to read about it first, so this was a good exercise for me.

  10. I’m glad you enjoyed Anita Shreve’s latest book. I was disappointed by it after having read all of her books. I really loved Testimony, Resistance, Eden Close and Strange Fits of Passion.
    .-= diane´s last blog ..Tuesday Teasers =-.

  11. It’s too bad that this one was a disappointment for you Diane!

    I read your review and agree that she really got the setting right and I loved all the details about Kenya and the people. It was a very internal story and I can be okay with characters I don’t like if I’m interested in the action surrounding them, and I was really curious as to how doing the big thing that they did, moving to a foreign culture, etc would affect their marriage.

    But you are quite right that no one was particularly warm and fuzzy. Better luck next time. And I hope to check out some of the other Shreve favorite that you mentioned.

  12. Great review! The only Shreve book I’ve read is Testimony. This one sounds really interesting. I’m intrigued by your experiment…I don’t think I’ve ever read a book without first reading descriptions and reviews for it. I may have to try that at some point.

  13. The leader of my book club has read every Anita Shreve and has been a little disappointed of late but she said Shreve is back to top form in this one. Glad to hear you enjoyed it, too.

  14. Great review! Thanks for mentioning mine (I’m humbled)!
    .-= sheri´s last blog ..The Score: P!nk – Please Don’t Leave Me =-.

  15. Yes, I love to pick up a book I don’t know much about … I still give it a fair shot (and more recently, have given myself permission to put it down if it doesn’t work!)
    .-= Dawn – She is Too Fond of Books´s last blog ..Winners of *The Listeners* by Gloria Whelan =-.

  16. Thanks for the linky-dink! I read the WORST review on this book in the LA Times. I thought it was pretty good. According to the journalist, her others are better. Hmm…
    .-= sheri´s last blog ..Book Reccomendation: The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory =-.