A Change in Altitude Review
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A Change in Altitude, Anita Shreve’s 15th novel, features Margaret and Patrick, a young married couple living as expatriates in 1970s Kenya, amid political upheaval and corruption.

The book is written in three parts: Part One focuses on Margaret and Patrick’s climb of the second-highest mountain in Africa with another couple (despite the fact that neither Patrick nor Margaret—especially Margaret—seems prepared or qualified to embark on such an adventure). During the climb, a trust is broken and tragedy strikes, setting the tone for the remainder of the novel.

In Part Two, Margaret and Patrick move on, trying to outrun the bad memories and Margaret’s feelings of guilt and responsibility resulting from the attempted ill-fated climb. It is here that the novel tends to plod along, as the couple struggles through their marriage. Patrick buries himself in his work as a doctor, and Margaret, seeking to fill an emptiness, finds employment as a journalist’s photographer and begins to expand her horizons. The story turning is predicable, as stories of faltering relationships often are, when each suspects the other is harboring romantic feelings and hidden relationships with other people, evoking feelings of jealousy and doubt in each other, further straining the marriage.

Part Three shows a spark of hope when Patrick, believing that the couple’s problems began on Mt. Kenya, decides that a return to the mountain and a successful climb to the top will cure what ails the couple’s struggling relationship. This turns into an experience that forces Margaret to question whether their marriage is worth saving. I believe it’s supposed to result in an exultant, triumphant ending—at least on Margaret’s part. However, it fails, leaving readers with a “What now?” feeling—but not interested enough to hope for a sequel.

A Change in Altitude is about the breakdown of a young marriage—and what happens when nobody cares enough to try. Despite Shreve’s superb prose, the character development leaves something to be desired. I found it hard to feel for the characters, as they evoked little emotion on my part. Margaret and Patrick are shallow, and they tend to get whiny, lending to the feeling of hopelessness, and I eventually found myself at the point where I just didn’t care what happened to them. Peripheral characters and subplots don’t fare much better, as they are relatively weak, and the only two characters who are worth caring about play a very minor role.

The novel’s African setting is the strongest part of the book, as Shreve skillfully portrays life in the African country for the different classes, the citizens, and the expats, providing a cultural education that nevertheless makes reading the book worthwhile.

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