A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve

July 20, 2011

Plot summary (from the publisher): Margaret and Patrick have been married just a few months when they set off on what they hope will be a great adventure-a year living in Kenya. Margaret quickly realizes there is a great deal she doesn’t know about the complex mores of her new home, and about her own husband.

A British couple invites the newlyweds to join on a climbing expedition to Mount Kenya, and they eagerly agree. But during their harrowing ascent, a horrific accident occurs. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Margaret struggles to understand what happened on the mountain and how these events have transformed her and her marriage, perhaps forever.

A Change in Altitude illuminates the inner landscape of a couple, the irrevocable impact of tragedy, and the elusive nature of forgiveness. With stunning language and striking emotional intensity, Anita Shreve transports us to the exotic panoramas of Africa and into the core of our most intimate relationships.

Warning: Spoilers below!


  • I liked the setting of the story and enjoyed learning a little bit about life in Kenya. Usually I find it tiresome when authors spend a great deal of time on descriptions of local customs and whatnot, but strangely enough, I wanted more out of Shreve here.
  • The scene describing what happened to Diana was pretty harrowing. I liked it, and thought Shreve did that part great justice. I wonder if small excursions like that offered disability insurance back in the ’70s (or whenever the action was supposed to have taken place). I know they would have been sued to Kingdom Come if that happened today!
  • I’m glad that Margaret was able to make the ascent by herself. Given what had happened over the course of the book, she deserved to reach the summit; Patrick did not. I liked that it was her moment of triumph, and hers alone.
  • When Patrick and Margaret’s marriage began to show signs of strain, I thought for sure Patrick would have an affair (which I guess is up for debate, since his interactions with that Italian doctor were quite suspect). It therefore threw me for a loop when Margaret ended up being the one to fall for another man. I just wish she’d actually gone through with it instead of agreeing to walk away from Rafiq altogether.


  • Patrick was one of the most boring, loathsome characters I have read about in a long time. I simply cannot understand what Margaret saw in him, and why she would even want to try to work out their marriage. This is something Shreve should have at least tried to establish. Since she didn’t, I was completely distracted wondering why Margaret didn’t just divorce the asshole.
  • I have a hard time believing that rats would have scared Margaret so much that she would hold hands with Arthur all night long. Seriously, who holds hands with a casual acquaintance like that? And then to have that be the catalyst that resulted in Diana’s death was pretty cheap, IMO.
  • The first part of the book was so slow and boring that I almost gave up on the whole thing. I might have been better served doing so, as nothing the rest of the way made the effort worthwhile.
  • I hated the ambiguous ending. Sure, life isn’t always cut and dried, so there will be times when big questions remain up in the air. But again, Patrick had so little going for him that I simply cannot believe that Margaret would want anything at all to do with him. I really believe there should have been zero ambiguity on that front. Margaret should have left him. Period.


Anita Shreve used to be one of my favorite authors. I still remember books like Fortune’s Rocks and The Last Time They Met, and how enjoyable they were to read. But I honestly can’t think of another Shreve title that I’ve enjoyed since then. It’s odd, because I truly think she is a great writer and I love her style; it’s just that the content and characters are severely lacking. I give this book 2 stars out of 5, and will probably be taking a break from Shreve for a while.

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