Have you ever wondered what became of your first love? That seemingly innocent question is the driving force behind Anita Shreve’s bittersweet novel Where or When. The story focuses on Siân Richards and Charles Callahan, who fell hard for one another when they met at summer camp at the tender age of 14. Though the couple went their separate ways at the end of the summer, the intensity of their first love remained unmatched.
Where or When takes place 31 years after this young romance ran its course. Charles Callahan is browsing the newspaper one day when a familiar face on the front page catches his eye—Siân Richards, now a successful poet. Charmed by the memories that come flooding back to him, and looking for a distraction from his financial woes, Charles decides to reach out to Siân. He assumes that their attraction will have faded with time, and their correspondence starts out innocently enough. But after realizing that they connect on a deeper level with each other than with their spouses, the simmering tension between Charles and Siân soon boils over into a passionate, ill-advised affair.
Read an excerpt from Where or When, and then download the book.
My plane is leaving in a few hours, but I had to send these pictures off to you before I left. For some reason I cannot explain, I was seized this afternoon with a desire to go through my trunks and find the photographs I thought were there. I am sending you these two—the one of us together in the courtyard and the shot of the lake taken from the outdoor chapel. I’m sure that the one of us was taken on the last day, just before we had to leave. How extraordinary what the memory got right and what it didn’t. You look much as I had remembered you (do you still have somewhere that wonderful old Brownie that is in your hand?). But I look very different. I didn’t remember the Bermuda shorts or that my hair was quite that light ever. Nor that you and I were the same height. Your arm is around me, but just barely, and I’m unable at all to meet the gaze of the camera. I seem to be studying my feet.
Aren’t the photographs concrete proof that somewhere in time we did actually meet and know each other? What did we know? I wonder. And what did our voices sound like?
This archaeological dig has consumed nearly all my afternoon, and I’m not even packed yet. I must run, but I wanted you to have this. One day I will find the bracelet. I’m sure I must have it. I never throw anything away.
I promise a postcard.
I drove to the beach today to look out toward Portugal, but there was a haze on the water, and the view was obscured.
Actually, I often go to the beach and look out toward Portugal. This activity consumes more of my time than it ought to.
This letter is hard to write, knowing you are far away and won’t even read it for at least a week. I wonder what it is like for you in England, what you are doing. I imagine you with a long scarf wrapped around your neck, walking along a path toward a beautiful stone building where your students are waiting for you.
I was moved by your archaeological dig and by the two photographs. It was the last day of camp, and we had asked someone to take the picture of us together. I remember that my parents had arrived already, before yours, and that they were standing off at some distance, watching us, barely masking their impatience. I also remember that I cried all the way home in the car and that when I told my mother I had given you a gold bracelet with the words “The Ridge” on it, she said to me: “So where’s my bracelet?”
What happened to me thirty-one years ago was love at first sight. I don’t understand the phenomenon entirely, and I’m more than a little embarrassed at having to resort to the cliches of old 45s, but I can remember vividly that gut-wrenching feeling. I am less clear about what happened to me when I saw your picture in the newspaper two months ago. Last night I was reading Paul Ricoeur, and a line of his stopped me: “the fulfillment of an antecedent meaning which remained in suspense.” He meant the irrational irruption of Jesus Christ in the context of the New Testament, but I tend to take bits where I find them and apply them to my own life. The difficulty for me is that I can’t completely absorb what happened thirty-one years ago or on September 15, because I don’t have enough access to the antecedent.
All this means is that I want to meet the woman who has grown from the girl I remember.
Time has taken on a new dimension. I feel the chaos of time, but I’m trying to comprehend it in relationship to loss. I spent all of August with Stephen Hawking, thinking about “quarks” and black holes, but he didn’t mention how waiting for a letter or recrossing a warp of thirty-one years to a young girl’s face can make time fold in upon itself.
My daughter is now the same age as we were then, a “fact” of physics or of nature that baffles me.
Perhaps I am looking only for an open connection.
Today has more warmth than you would imagine for the fifteenth of November. The ocean was a dusty blue when I drove to the beach earlier, with the haze on the horizon. There was a stillness this afternoon, both visual and sensual, that was soporific—or at least that’s the excuse I am using to explain why I dozed for twenty minutes in my car with the sun warming the front seat through the windshield. At the beach, across a long wooden bridge from the mainland, you can hear the bells from the church tower in the center of town, and I like listening to them, interspersed with the calling of the gulls. Even the gulls were half asleep today, though—enjoying this short Indian-summer respite from a string of cold gray days. I nearly missed my lunch appointment.
You mention my wife, and I mention your husband, and we receive in reply only further questions or silences. I might one day be able to speak to you or write you about my marriage, but I am more engaged now (and have been for some time) with the sound of bells from a church tower or the mysterious physics of time. What to reveal and what to conceal is perplexing to me.
For the same reason that I cannot focus on my marriage, my business is shot to hell. I used to be better at compartmentalizing. I’m supposed to sell insurance and real estate, but the entire town is under siege, and every dime is frozen. I could write you more about this, but I’d like to keep the shit out of this correspondence. I’d like to transcend the shit, is what I’d like to do. Actually, I do not always hate my job. I used to like to talk to people about what was important to them.
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Where does the pain in your poetry come from?
I imagine going to a market in Cambridge and buying ingredients for a meal that I would make for you. I love to cook. Am I going too far?
Yesterday I called The Ridge to see if it was still there. You will probably not be surprised to learn that it has been turned into an inn. I asked the woman who answered the phone if she had a brochure with a photograph so that I could see what it looked like now. She said the only exterior shot was the building itself with the fountain. Did I remember the fountain? I said yes, but that my most vivid memory was of the girl I met there thirty-one years ago. She said: “Did you marry her?” I said: “No, but I should have.”
Now I know I am going too far.
Sometimes I think we are both too serious. If you want me to stop, just tell me. I know this can end in an instant.
I know we have to meet. I think you know that as well.
I could tell you so much more, but I really just want to hold your hand.
As I sit here trying to compose a letter that will mean something to you, I can’t take my eyes off your picture. You said in a letter that you are not interesting and not mysterious, but you didn’t say that you are not beautiful.
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November 16, London
Today I took a walk in Regent’s Park. I’d love to see it in the summer when the roses are in bloom. I’m in London for talks with my British publisher. They’ve put me up at a wonderful hotel on the Strand. Downstairs in the pub, they serve forty different kinds of malt whiskey. Last night I tried three and was nearly paralyzed. Today is my birthday.
I want this to stop. I’m sorry.
It has been a very long time since anyone wanted to, or wanted only to, hold my hand.
I do not know you, but I sometimes think I have felt who you are in your letters.
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Regarding your last letter, there is a wonderful story about Jack and Bobby Kennedy during the Cuban missile crisis. You probably already know it, but I’m going to tell it to you anyway. Reducing it to its essentials, the story goes like this. At a crucial moment in the negotiations, Jack Kennedy gets a telegram from Khrushchev that’s fairly conciliatory and suggests that Khrushchev is going to back off. Just as Jack and Bobby are about to celebrate, however, Khrushchev fires off another telegram. This one is hostile and essentially tells Kennedy that he’s changed his mind about backing off. What to do? Bobby has a brilliant idea. Ignore the second telegram, pretend they never got it, and immediately go on national TV, thanking Khrushchev for his humane gesture—thus ending the crisis.
Your comment about holding your hand will haunt me forever.
The enclosed device has many possibilities, but I hope you’ll use it to listen to the tape I am sending with it. Sorry for the sound quality, but some of these songs are as old as I am. A number of them had to come off a jukebox.
I know you could order a similar tape with an 800 number and your credit card, but it wouldn’t be the same. I tried for the time that might bring us back together, if only for a moment. My favorite song is “Where or When.” The B side of that record, “That’s My Desire,” is a close second. This may mean nothing to you. There is a gap on one side where I screwed up. Just be patient. If you can’t be that, just put it in the trash compactor.
We have a reservation for lunch at The Ridge for next Thursday at twelve noon. I’m including with this letter directions from your house.
I thought it unfair to meet for lunch and not allow you to know what I look like when I know what you look like, so I am sending along this picture. It isn’t very good, but I don’t have many. My daughter took it last summer when she and I were fishing. The fish is a striped bass. On Thursday at noon I won’t be holding the fish, and I hope I won’t be left holding the bag.
Want to keep reading? Download Where or When.
Anita Shreve's novels explore love, loss, and the complicated nature of marriage. The romantic tension between Charles and Siân is palpable in this excerpt. It’s clear that their correspondence has become more than friendly, although they avoid discussing the exact nature of their feelings. As the story unfolds and they make plans to meet in person, the intimacy between Charles and Siân grows until it threatens to destroy the other relationships in their lives. For a steamy epistolary novel with an explosive conclusion, download Anita Shreve’s novel today.
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