Book Quote:

“And Margaret thought, as she stared out the window, of Africa, of the country just beyond the screen. It had been her constant companion for nearly a year, teaching her, scolding her, enveloping her. It was in her lungs and blood now. She’d thought she wanted to absorb Africa, but the continent had absorbed Margaret.”

Book Review:

Review by Eleanor Bukowsky (SEP 28, 2009)

In Anita Shreve’s A Change in Altitude, twenty-eight year old Patrick and Margaret McCoglan have been together for two years and married for five months. In the late 1970’s, they are expatriate Americans living in Nairobi, Kenya, where Patrick, a physician, is completing a fellowship on equatorial medicine and treating patients at free clinics around the country. Although Margaret was a photojournalist in her native Massachusetts, she does not currently have a job and she misses the stimulation and excitement of her profession. One day, Patrick announces that he would like Margaret to accompany him, their landlord, Arthur, and his wife, Diana, on a climb to the summit of Mount Kenya, “seventeen thousand feet, give or take.”  Arthur warns the newlyweds that, although they will be accompanied by another couple as well as porters and a guide, the ascent will be difficult, with a bog, scree, and a glacier to navigate. He informs them that “typically four or five people a year die climbing Mount Kenya.” Not everyone can adjust to the high altitudes, and there is the ever-present danger of acute mountain sickness. This is definitely not “a trip for the squeamish.”

Life in Africa is challenging, even on level ground. Thievery is common. One is fortunate to return to a parked car that hasn’t been stolen or dismembered for parts or to an apartment that hasn’t been emptied of its contents. In spite of the challenges she faces, Margaret believes that she has adjusted well to the customs, language, and culture of Kenya. She appreciates Kenya’s otherworldly beauty, breathtaking vistas, and exotic flora and fauna. On the other hand, she acknowledges that there is a corrupt and dictatorial government, widespread poverty, illness, lawlessness, tribal divisions, misogyny, and grinding servitude that keep many of Kenya’s men, women, and children from enjoying economic and political independence. The females, especially, are subject to horrifying indignities exemplified by the sad plight of Adhiambo, the nanny who cares for Arthur and Diana’s young children. She is destined to undergo a dreadful ordeal that leaves her devastated.

When the climb to Mt. Kenya ends in disaster, Margaret feels partly to blame, and her marriage to Patrick starts to unravel. In addition, after Margaret takes a freelance job at the Kenya Morning Tribune, she meets a handsome and charismatic reporter to whom she is instantly attracted. Can she resist this man’s appeal and remain faithful to her husband?Anita Shreve dissects the anatomy of human relationships, exploring what can happen when a husband and wife notice their spouse’s flaws for the first time. Will they have the maturity and determination to work through their differences or will they take the path of least resistance?

Climbing a mountain is an obvious metaphor for the inevitable difficulties that everyone faces in life. Whether we embark on a new job, enter into a serious relationship, marry, or become parents, we are navigating unknown and frightening territory. How we fare is a matter of luck, persistence, flexibility, strength of character, and the ability to forgive oneself and others for the inevitable mistakes that all human beings make. The author chooses to give us scant background information about the protagonists, and she avoids offering simplistic solutions to their problems. In A Change in Altitude, Shreve poses a number of thought-provoking questions. For example, if a climber, for some reason, is unable to finish his ascent, should his effort be considered a failure? Or is the process of attempting to reach great heights in itself a worthwhile endeavor? Shreve respects her readers’ intelligence, allowing us to draw our own conclusions about the issues raised in this understated, sensitive, and subtle character study.

Editor’s note:  Eleanor Bukowsky gave this book 5 out of 5 stars on Amazon.com.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-0from 144 readers
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown and Company (September 22, 2009)
REVIEWER: Eleanor Bukowsky
EXTRAS: Anita Shreve’s web site (see Books)
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More reviews of Anita Shreve books:

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September 28, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Africa, Contemporary, Family Matters, Reading Guide

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