A CHANGE IN ALTITUDE
BY ANITA SHREVE
Margaret and Patrick have been married just a few months when they set off on what they hope will be a great adventure-a year living in Kenya. Margaret quickly realizes there is a great deal she doesn't know about the complex mores of her new home, and about her own husband.
A British couple invites the newlyweds to join on a climbing expedition to
A Change in Altitude illuminates the inner landscape of a couple, the irrevocable impact of tragedy, and the elusive nature of forgiveness. With stunning language and striking emotional intensity, Anita Shreve transports us to the exotic panoramas of
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
ANITA SHREVE began writing fiction while working as a high school teacher. Although one of her first published stories, "Past the Island, Drifting," was awarded an O. Henry Prize in 1975, Shreve felt she couldn't make a living as a fiction writer so she became a journalist. She traveled to Africa, and spent three years in Kenya, writing articles that appeared in magazines such as Quest, US, and Newsweek. Back in the United States, she turned to raising her children and writing freelance articles for magazines. Shreve later expanded two of these articles — both published in the New York Times Magazine — into the nonfiction books Remaking Motherhood and Women Together, Women Alone. At the same time Shreve also began working on her first novel, Eden Close. With its publication in 1989, she gave up journalism for writing fiction full time, thrilled, as she says, with "the rush of freedom that I could make it up."
Since Eden Close Anita Shreve has written eleven other novels: Strange Fits of Passion, Where or When, Resistance, The Weight of Water, The Pilot's Wife, Fortune's Rocks, The Last Time They Met, Sea Glass, All He Ever Wanted, Light on Snow, A Wedding in December and, most recently, Body Surfing. In 1998 Shreve received the PEN/L. L. Winship Award and the New England Book Award for fiction
In Anita Shreve's newest work, now out in paperback, A CHANGE IN ALTITUDE, Margaret and Patrick have only been married a short time when they move to Kenya so that Patrick can practice medicine. His area of expertise is that of equatorial medicine that obviously lends itself to the area that they move to. The time period is the 1970s and Anita Shreve is at her always wonderful, narrative best as she tells of the treacherous mountain hike Margaret and Patrick make up Mount Kenya. Margaret's instincts are wary and she doesn't have good feelings about it even before they start.
They plan the climb with their landlord and his wife, Arthur and Diana, and friends of Diana's, Saartje and Willem. Margaret isn't fond of their pretentious landlord or happy when Willem begins to tell of all the possible dangers they will encounter like the physical side-effects and weather problems. They make a trial hike to get used to things and although Margaret is still uncomfortable with it, she does admit the scenery is glorious as they experience the African horizons. Their pleasure doesn't last long, however, as Margaret is attacked by fire ants that leave stings so intense that she actually has to rip off her clothing. Margaret should have taken this as an omen but instead she goes ahead with the climb.
The actual climb is hardest on Margaret and she is always the slowest in the group. You have to give her credit, I guess, but I believe I would have never have gone in the first place. One horrendous thing after another happens making it a tortuous time which ranges from political arguments, to one of their party winding up romantically interested in another, to an event so unexpected and shocking that all the rest seemed insignificant. Following the tragedy, Margaret questions herself as she thinks a small and harmless action on her part may have prompted the whole disaster.
Subsequently, Margaret tries to recover and proceed with a normal life but her life is changed forever. One thing after another seems to happen and it appears as if nothing will ever be the same, and her marriage is effected as a result. The amount of stress Margaret endures give the reader such empathy for her that they will read on if for no other reason than to see what happens to her.
Anita Shreve has given readers another wonderfully crafted story with beautifully descriptive vignettes and scenery especially in Africa. However, although you do feel sympathetic for Margaret, I myself was frustrated with her. Perhaps the time period it took place in had something to do with it, but I could not believe the relationship she had with Patrick. I found him to be difficult to like and thus it made it hard for me to care what happened to him and his relationship with Margaret. In turn, I was puzzled at how she allowed herself to be treated like she was, and how little self-respect I thought she had. I would never have taken a hike I was so set against with all those good reasons she had, let alone go and live in Kenya with him. Patrick didn't endear himself to me personally so I found it hard to care about the whole underlying theme of a woman trying to make a life for herself and her husband while she made such poor choices. I think Margaret and the other characters were well developed enough to make their parts plausible. However, when I put all the pieces together, I was sad that I didn't like the story as a whole more than I did, as I always adore Shreve's writing. This will have to be put on the bottom of the list of my favorite Anita Shreve books. But when you ask would I recommend it? Yes! I say that as I think your own views and feelings enter into how you perceive these characters and that may be in a much different way than I did. So, yes, based on all the incredible books I have loved of Anita Shreve's, and the narrative expertise she uses in this novel, I say give A CHANGE IN ALTITUDE a chance so that you may form your own opinion. It certainly will make for a great book club choice as it invites good discussion. Don't forget to check out the Reading Group Guide Questions or go here to download them yourself.
READING GROUP GUIDE DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:
Questions for Anita Shreve's A CHANGE OF ALTITUDE
1. How would you interpret the novel’s title? Does the concept of altitude have significance in the story beyond its literal meaning?
2. During the drive to Mt. Kenya, Margaret and Patrick talk about whether photography detaches you from the present or helps you immerse yourself in it more fully (75). In your own life, do you find that taking photographs enriches experiences or prevents you from being fully in the moment?
3. When Diana brings Adhiambo to stay with Patrick and Margaret for the night, they disagree about how best to deal with the situation. Margaret seems more concerned about Adhiambo’s emotional well-being, while Patrick focuses on her physical state. In what way do their differing perspectives reflect other aspects of their characters? Do you think Adhiambo would have been better off if Margaret and Patrick had taken her to the hospital that night?
4. Throughout the novel, Margaret is struck by the way Kenyan characters use the phrase “Just all right” (67, 189, 246, 303). How would you interpret the meaning of this phrase? Why is it so surprising to Margaret?
5. How culpable is Margaret in what happens on the mountain? To what extent does the blame fall on others involved in the climb? Should a person be held responsible for the unintended consequences of her actions (124)?
6. Is Patrick right to confront Margaret about what happened on the mountain? Margaret argues that if he loves her and intends to stay with her, he should not have told her his
opinion, while Patrick believes it is most important to be honest (125). What do you think is most important in a relationship, total honesty or sensitivity to the other’s feelings?
7. Why do you think Margaret feels so strongly about taking the photograph of the leopard? Are there parallels between this action and Diana’s behavior on the glacier? Have you ever put yourself in danger because of a momentary impulse? What do you think motivates actions of this kind?
8. What is your definition of infidelity? Does Margaret’s relationship with Rafiq constitute unfaithfulness to Patrick? Is there such a thing as emotional infidelity or is only physical cheating really cheating?
9. How much of a marriage’s success or failure do you think can be attributed to the love between husband and wife, and how much to external factors, such as jobs, finances, location, and other people? Patrick says, “I think couples need projects to keep them together” (271). Is he correct that a couple must put in effort to make their marriage work?
10. If the accident on the mountain had never occurred, do you think Margaret and Patrick’s relationship would have evolved differently? Would anything more have happened between Arthur and Margaret? Between Rafiq and Margaret?
11. Imagine Margaret and Patrick thirty years after the end of A Change in Altitude, looking back on their life in Africa. How do you think each of them would describe the trajectory of their relationship during this time?
12. Describe your response to the novel’s ending. Did you find it sad? Uplifting? Did you feel that things had worked out for the best?
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