A Change In Altitude by 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.

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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