In Print

Dark shadow of terrorism looms

By Brooks Robards - October 5, 2006

"A Student of Living Things," by Susan Richards Shreve. Viking. 2006. 246 pages. $24.95.

In a career spanning more than 30 years, Vineyard summer visitor Susan Richards Shreve has written 10 novels. Her most recent, "A Student of Living Things," plunges a Washington, D.C., family into a world filled with terrorism and uncertainty.

The novel grew out of the terror Ms. Shreve herself experienced during the 2002 rampage of "Beltway Snipers" in the nation's capital.

"In the spirit of this irrational terror, I began to think about a family in a time of generalized dread like ours," she has written.

The central character in "A Student of Living Things" is Claire Frayn, a graduate student in evolutionary biology who is haunted by her brother Steven's recent, unexplained murder. Steven, a law student and human rights activist, was shot down by a sniper on the steps of George Washington University's library.

In the face of his death Claire, who hero-worshipped her brother, disintegrates. This highly self-conscious young woman stops driving, moves into her brother's room at home, and begins wearing his girlfriend's clothes.

Every member of the Frayn family feels fractured by Steven's death. Ms. Shreve portrays Julia, the mother, as an earthy Jew, while the father, David, a professor of medicine and research doctor at the National Institutes of Health, is a Welshman and a Quaker. The extended Frayn family, most of whom live under the same roof, includes Julia's sister Faith, who loses her job because of Steven's activist rhetoric; Faith's son Bernard, who lost a leg in a violent explosion; David's brother Milo, a concert pianist; and Claire's child Asa, the identity of whose father is veiled in mystery until the end of the novel. Even Steven's girlfriend becomes part of the family after his death.

Since girlhood, Claire has kept observational diaries recording her experiences with the natural world as a blossoming biologist. These entries seem intended as a counterpoint to the life of the frightened and confused young adult, since they appear between chapters of the ongoing narrative. But they are oddly unevocative, perhaps because they don't really seem like the writings of a child despite Ms. Shreve's skill as a writer.

"A Student of Living Things," by Susan Richards Shreve
Accomplished and often eloquent, Ms. Shreve, who teaches literature at George Mason University, skillfully weaves together the fabric of the grieving Frayn family's life. Milo, for instance, decides to buy the piano he's longed for and squeeze it into the family's already overcrowded household. David retreats into the airplane hangar he has put in the backyard, and Julia moves to the glass factory where she works.

Claire is the one who forges grief into the desire for revenge. She involves herself with a man who claims to have information about her brother's death and participates in a questionable plot to snare the supposed murderer.

Elements like these make it seem that Ms. Shreve will take the reader on the roller coaster ride of a suspense novel, but she is too intelligent a writer to slip entirely into that cliché-ridden genre. Instead she propels Claire into a love affair inspired by false identity, vengeful motives, and a correspondence based on romantically evocative music.

As emotionally frozen as the specimens she keeps in her bedroom at home, Claire has yet to blossom into womanhood or build an identity independent of her quirky and overpowering family. Struggling to find her way out of the maze of confusion caused by her brother's death, she begins to test the waters of adulthood and enter the world as more than just a student of living things.

The most haunting aspect of Ms. Shreve's novel is the atmosphere of anomie that invades the lives of characters no longer capable of feeling normally. They seem adrift in a world where dread has replaced meaning. In this way, she has put her finger squarely on one of the most distressing elements of American society today.

Brooks Robards is a poet, author, and former college film instructor. She frequently contributes stories on art, film, and poetry to The Times.