Before breaking loose at the end, Sea Glass might seem merely a collection of brief segments apportioned among five characters who are usually known by first names only. In the manner of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Anita Shreve explores the minds of the observers from whose viewpoints the action is described. The psychological drama develops slowly, its tensions often barely sensed.
Honora, 20, is the central force. Not one to credit such folly as love at first sight, the former bank teller finds herself taken over by Sexton, a typewriter salesman. On their wedding day, they move into a rickety onetime nunnery which will become a not-so-secret rendezvous for the strikers. Now Shreve shifts gears into drive.
Three other lives intersect Honora’s. There are McDermott, a deaf millworker who awakens the bride to her mistake and almost lays claim to her himself; Vivian, a summer vacationer from the big city, an Eve Arden-like supporter for Honora; and little Alphonse, 12, a French Canadian who lives in a tenement with his mother and five sisters and brothers and serves as a “reference” character to remind readers of the era’s desperate times.
Desperation, not wholly earned, keys the final pages. Strike-breakers in Ku Klux Klan garb (Shreve reminds readers in a note, the KKK flourished in northern New England in the 1920’s) invade the hideaway, destroy Sexton’s press, fatally misidentify McDermott, and kill him. The marriage over, Sexton survives but faces prison for shooting a cop. The pregnant Honora departs with Vivian for Boston. Crucially, she returns at the last minute to recover her cherished sea glass. Like Honora, these maritime visitants--multi-colored beach residue of unknown origin--keep their mysteries inviolate.