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'Wedding' dwells on angst, lost love

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Popular novelist Anita Shreve covers old ground in A Wedding in December, and not in a good way.

Shreve obviously felt she had more to say about lost loves, bad marriages and life-shattering tragedies -- some of the building blocks of her earlier works. But she doesn't, at least not in this book.

That said, Shreve is a very good writer, so if you've got a yen for middle-aged angst, here's the gist:

It's December 2001. Seven former high school friends and a smattering of significant others gather for the wedding of two of their schoolmates at an inn in the Berkshire Mountains.

Some of the friends have not seen each other since their graduation in 1974 from the private boarding school. The bride- and groom-to-be, Bridget and Billy, had been high school sweethearts who married other people but rediscovered each other two decades later. Bridget has cancer and is struggling to maintain a veneer of normalcy as her wedding approaches.

Nora, the inn owner and the widow of a famous poet, and Harrison -- married but who arrives without his wife -- were meant to be together. But fate was thwarted all those years ago when Nora became the girlfriend of Harrison's best friend, Stephen, a charismatic and doomed young man who died a few months before graduation.

The other three are Agnes, a teacher with a secret love; Rob, a famous pianist who hid his homosexuality as a boy; and Jerry, a driven, obnoxious millionaire.

The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Agnes, Harrison and Bridget.

Agnes' chapters are comparatively interesting because she is writing a novel about a World War I explosion in Halifax that killed thousands, and Shreve injects chapters from that story into the account of the wedding weekend.

Unfortunately, Agnes' story also concerns lost loves, bad marriages and life-shattering tragedies. With the gathering taking place in the shadow of 9/11, you've got all the disaster touchstones you need and then some.

Bridget's perspective as the woman who learns that she may be dying just when she finds her true love again is the most touching. The passages in which she tries to help her teenage son from a previous marriage cope with the sea changes in her life are the best in the book.

But Harrison can be quite tedious. He has a good job, nice home, beautiful wife and two healthy sons but believes nonetheless that life and true love slipped by him when he lost lovely Nora after Stephen died.

Shreve has been highly acclaimed for such earlier works as The Pilot's Wife and The Weight of Water. Her writing is fluid, and the plot points interlock seamlessly, but readers may well feel that they have stayed too long at the party by the time this Wedding is over.

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