Sunday, July 31, 2011

Keeping the “Me” in Marriage: A Book Review of Kristin Hannah’s “Distant Shores”

Kristin Hannah’s novel, Distant Shores, is not the type of book that makes you walk into walls because you can’t put it down long enough to make it to the bathroom.  Instead, Hannah’s work reads like a warm tidal wave of words that gently washes over the reader.    Neither shocking in originality nor surprising in its plot twists and turns, the beauty of this book lies more in its realistic content, rather than in any gimmicky moments of instant gratification or superbly developed characters.
Much like marriage itself, Hannah’s book requires a slow appreciation and a gentle simmering of mixed emotions.  Instead of being a drawback though, this deliberate measured pace is precisely where the value of Distant Shores lies.  The main character, Elizabeth “Birdie” Shore, is the forty-something mother of two college-aged girls who suddenly realizes she’s lost herself in the years she’s dedicated to being an exemplary mother and wife.  As her husband begins to focus more on his own professional success and her girls are consumed by their college careers, Birdie is left wondering what she has been working towards all these years and why her marriage and life suddenly hold no meaning for her.
Although sprinkled with clichés and riddled with a plethora of lonely sea imagery, Hannah somehow makes these common devices work as metaphors for marriage.  The writing style fits the topic of her book because dissolving marriages are relevant, familiar, and yet often unaddressed in our societies today.  The present unraveling of marriages and families is not something that happens overnight or with a sudden big bang.  Instead, the demise of a marriage is often a surreptitious unwinding that begins with a single thread, continually picked at until it pulls the whole sweater apart.  Like the drip of molasses, Hannah’s words and writing style capture that slow pace of family estrangement.  Bit by bit, the clandestine winds of discontent settle in and carry the couple apart, both physically and emotionally. 
Hannah’s message is a strong one that isn’t articulated quite enough in any medium.  Although the character of Birdie opts for a marital separation in order to “find herself,” the author doesn’t seem to be advocating this path of family destruction.  Both husband and wife realize in the end that despite the bumps in the road, the 24 years of marriage they shared is not something that can be easily forgotten or tossed aside.
Distant Shores is the type of work that can only be what you make of it.  Some readers may interpret it as encouraging an individualistic outlook, but I am confident that the underlying message is all about finding that middle road.  Marriage does not have to result in the loss of self and identity, particularly for the mothers in this world.  Instead, marriage can and should be the bond that helps each partner develop a stronger sense of self with the support and sanctity of a spouse.
While this novel won’t leave you breathless from excitement or emotion, it will provide you with a realistic look at married life with words that mimic the gentle swaying of a summer hammock rather than the rocking of a roller-coaster.  Losing yourself in life and in marriage is not a path worth following, but losing yourself in Hannah’s novel definitely is.
          --Suzy Ismail

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