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The scarlet letter isn't indelible after all

Fortune's Rocks By Anita Shreve

There's a new feminist movement afoot this fall. It has nothing to do with equal pay or quality day care or even sensible shoes. Just last month, author Sena Jeter Naslund rescued Ahab's wife from watery obscurity in a rousing revision of Melville's classic "Moby Dick."

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This month, Anita Shreve has published a morality tale that reads like something Edith Wharton would have written if she'd been a friend of Gloria Steinem instead of Henry James. "Fortune's Rocks" is a classic fin de sicle novel wrapped in millennial optimism.

These new heroines confront 19th-century challenges with a mixture of moxy and 20th-century liberalism. Fortunately, like Naslund, in addition to being politically correct, Shreve is also a wildly entertaining novelist.

Here she tells the story of Olympia Biddeford, a precocious teenager at the turn of the century who shatters her future. Nothing about Olympia's upbringing prepares her refined family for the shock. They vacation in a converted nunnery on the New Hampshire shore. Her wealthy father teaches his only daughter at home because the Boston academies aren't up to his standards. Olympia's mother is "the least physical of all women," a classic Victorian invalid wholly devoted to the preservation of her beauty and "intolerant of even modest episodes of reality."

This is a family shocked by seeing people walk barefoot on the beach. Discovering their daughter in flagrante with a 45-year-old married man brings the festivities of her sweet 16th birthday party to a premature conclusion.

The potential for melodrama and maudlin romance hangs above this novel like Damocles' sword. Fortunately, that hair never snaps, or if it does, Shreve is quick enough to catch herself on the way down. Indeed, what makes "Fortune's Rocks" so compelling is Shreve's attention to detail and her remarkable restraint.

The novel opens in the summer of 1899 at the moment of an enormous but ambiguous change in Olympia's young life. "In the time it takes for her to walk from the bathhouse at the seawall of Fortune's Rocks, where she has left her boots and has discreetly pulled off her stockings, to the waterline along which the sea continually licks the pink and silver sand, she learns about desire." That powerful feeling remains inexpressible until her father introduces John Haskell, a socially progressive essayist and physician.

Slowly over the next few months, Olympia and John navigate and then breach the social mores that rule their lives. Ironically, the universal respect of such rigid social standards gives these lovers more leeway to deceive than they could find in a looser - and more suspicious - era.

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Shreve spares her heroine none of the anguish that accompanies this affair and its exposure. John Haskell's wife, a woman Olympia admires, is devastated. Olympia endures a fascinating but grueling courtroom battle. Olympia's father ages under the weight of his crushed hopes, but the ordeal scrapes away the formality that marked their relationship, and they find their love for each other deeper than it ever was during his strict tutelage.

The only blurry spot in this wonderfully suspenseful exploration of desire is the adulterer himself. John Haskell does much to alleviate suffering in the mill towns of New England - described with Shreve's signature scholarship - and he never attempts to excuse his actions. But his willingness to destroy his happy marriage and seduce a friend's teenage daughter remains unfathomable. We're asked to accept this gross transgression as an isolated flaw in an otherwise wonderful man.

If the end of "Fortune's Rocks" is too forgiving for 19th-century tastes, it's certainly in harmony with our kinder, gentler age that's willing to reward redemption. The scarlet letter still burns, but the flames aren't deadly.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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