A Change In The Last Time They Met

Author Anita Shreve is one of my favorite authors (I know; I say that about a lot of authors…) and I recently bought “A Change in Altitude.” I’d just finished reading “The Last Time They Met.” My daughter would not be happy reading any of her books. That’s because they have open endings.

Open endings are just that — endings that are not all wrapped in nice little packages with all the loose ends tied up. Nope, I had to reread the ending of “The Last Time They Met” in order to decide how I thought it would end. Shreve does give some hints as to how the story would resolve itself — I just had to look for it. The ending of “A Change in Altitude” was a little more straightforward, or maybe I was just anticipating the ending or lack thereof.

Books with open endings are fun to discuss at book club, too. Each woman has her own idea of what happened or would happen if the book were given a sequel.

Shreve must have an exciting imaginary life — she includes peripheral characters from one story in the next book. I had to look twice to confirm it. Some of the characters in “The Weight of Water” show up in “A Change in Altitude.” It almost makes me wonder if some of those characters or bits of plot are biographical. She must have visited Africa at some point, and either knew someone or climbed Mount Kenya herself. Fascinating in either case.

So now I’ll tell you how I think the books ended.

In “The Last Time They Met,” the two main characters are perfect for one another. The whole story is told in backwards chronological order. It starts out with Thomas and Linda meeting at a workshop where both are presenting. Both are writers and both are single again. They rediscover each other, and realize their love is still as strong as ever.

Flash back 20-some years — both of them are living in Africa and have a brief affair. Flash back again and the two are high school classmates, in love for the first time. Thomas is driving drunk and they have a car accident; Linda is injured, Thomas is scarred, and they are basically kept apart by their families.

And now back to the present: Linda has children who depend on her, and has a life apart from him.  Thomas realizes that he’s missed a lifetime of loving Linda, and is so grief-stricken that he kills himself. Grim, I know, but that’s what I gleaned from reading between the lines.

In “A Change of Altitude,” the main female character has followed her doctor-husband to Africa where he announces that they are going to climb Mount Kenya with two other couples. Margaret and Patrick have a good enough marriage, but Patrick treats her a little condescendingly. She doesn’t know the one couple on the climb, and they rent their house from the other couple.

On the climb, Margaret is consistently last — struggling to keep up and prompting Patrick to get testy with her. Meanwhile, Diana and Arthur, the couple they rent from, ignore some of the safety rules. Diana is an overachiever — she wants to be first in line and get moving at all costs. Ultimately it costs her her life. Halfway across a glacier, she is so driven to get ahead that she unclips herself from the safety line and then loses her balance and slides into a crevasse.

The climbers abandon their goal and return home. Margaret and Patrick’s marriage has changed. Patrick blames Margaret for Diana’s rage because during the night, Diana’s husband kept Margaret from freaking out about the rats climbing over them by holding her hand. Really. When they awoke, Arthur and Margaret were still holding hands. Arthur had been flirting with Margaret, but it was all harmless. Apparently holding hands was the last straw.

Margaret and Patrick are forced to move, and finding safe housing in Nairobi is apparently difficult. They’ve been burglarized a number of times. Margaret is a photographer, so she gets a free-lance job with a newspaper. Too bad it’s a newspaper with a bad reputation for telling the truth in a regime that would rather spin or withhold the truth from the public.

At the newspaper, Margaret falls in love with one of the writers — a man with a global background. The love connection is hardly acknowledged in the story, because Margaret is supposed to be a happily married woman. But their connection to one another finally comes to a head when Rafik visits Margaret in the hospital. She has miscarried a baby without having known she was pregnant.

Rafik is the honorable type, and asks not to be paired with Margaret on any future stories. Margaret is clinically depressed after her hospitalization, and Patrick chalks it up to the miscarriage, not the end of her love affair that wasn’t. Rafik and the editor of the newspaper are both arrested — Rafik is deported to London, the editor imprisoned — for trying to investigate the murder of  college students who were buried in a mass grave. Margaret gets to see Rafik one more time as he is escorted by police at the airport. He quietly signals to her not to intervene.

Patrick does what he thinks is best for Margaret, and tries to interest her in other things. They become friends with another couple, and Patrick suggests they climb Mount Kenya. He blames their earlier failure at not being properly acclimated to climb. They don’t tell the other couple what happened on their first climb until they are halfway up the mountain.

This couple is more sympathetic about the tragedy, but before they can continue, they all fall ill with altitude sickness. Except Margaret. She has confided in one of the guides about her earlier attempt, and he urges her to complete the climb — right now. The two gear up and make the final ascent. Her guide tells her that the mountain god will no longer bother her. Margaret thinks about how she’ll tell Rafik about the climb.

That tells me that her love affair with Rafik will continue. I don’t know if she and Patrick divorce, but it’s clear to me that Margaret will find Rafik someday somehow.

And if you read the books, let me know how you think they end.