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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Timing is everything

‘Timing is everything’. So ends the novel Where or when? written by one of my favourite authors, the late Anita Shreve. Where or when? tells the story of lust and betrayal between a married man and a married woman who engaged in a night of virginal sex many years ago when they were teenagers at a summer camp, and despite going their separate ways and forming their own families, their names cropped up in each other’s lives by accident which prompted them to reconnect and re-engage in a lustful and treacherous relationship. This story plays on a double betrayal since while one sees the two main characters’ lives go to shreds as their extramarital affair begins to take hold of them and their respective families, the fact that they met as teenage lovers makes their subsequent marriages seem like betrayals to their one-time childhood puerile passion. This duplicity plays out beautifully in Shreve’s clever and intricate narrative structure as she weaves the present and the past together, namely the summer camp all those years ago when the boy and the girl met as teenage lovers and the adult reunion when the man and woman engage in an extramarital affair, and just as we see the two teenagers fall in innocent love with each other, their adult lives slowly and painfully crumble and fall into pieces. The climax builds towards the end where the female character tells the male character, who has just confessed to his affair to his family and is facing the prospect of an ugly divorce, that she cannot possibly betray her family anymore and demands that they end the affair, which sends the male character to a course of self-destruction as he rues the broken state of his family and reels in the pain of being dumped by his lover, and just as his car skids off the highway and dives into the river channel, he glances at his watch and sees the time, at which point the narrative cleverly cuts back to the female character who, at this precise moment, hears a song in the supermarket which rekindles her love for her lover and makes her regret saying what she has just said. She decides to reconcile with her lover, even to the cost of losing her family. All too late, not only because her lover is now involved in a self-destructive fatal car accident, but also because their love affair was never going to yield anything anyway since their lives had diverged from teenagehood and veered off into different paths, which makes their love affair doomed from the moment they bumped into each other as adults.

This is a beautiful love story which, despite criticisms, has stuck with me ever since I read it in 2003. It made me realise one thing: ‘timing is everything‘. When you miss your chance, you have missed your chance. No amount of reconciliation, guilt, lust, passion, or even true love can remedy what has happened. This is not to deny the existence of second chances which are as important as the initial opportunities but in case of the two characters in Anita Shreve’s Where or when?, their lives have become so intricately complex, what with marriage, family and children etc, that reuniting after so many years apart, even if the reunion is filled with true love and pure passion, can never yield a happy ending. Tragic yet true. RIP, Miss Anita Shreve. Though far from being your masterpiece (my personal favourite of yours is Resistance– another blog on this some other time), Where or when? is a powerful and haunting tale which has had a big influence on me. Thank you once again for illuminating our lives with your colourful stories. Finis.

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