A Change in Altitude: A Novel

Image of A Change in Altitude: A Novel
Release Date: 
September 21, 2009
Little, Brown & Company
Reviewed by: 

Patrick and Margaret had been together for two years. When Patrick had the opportunity to go to Kenya to study tropical diseases, he asked her to go with him.  Margaret was glad to leave her menial photography job at a small newspaper. They married hastily, but there was no mention of everlasting love. Both looked forward to a great adventure.


Landing In Kenya, Margaret might have wondered if there was any significance to the fact that her view included both Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro. The plane touched down on her birthday, and Patrick presented her with a diamond ring.


The young couple had reasons to think they were cursed. Margaret had car trouble, her wallet was stolen, and they endured a third theft of their Kenyan house in six weeks. Once they woke up to their car setting on blocks, all four tires gone. In spite of Margaret practicing for a week driving on the left side of the road, Margaret comes to the conclusion that one should not be taken out of her environment or one might be subject to hazardous derangement. Is it simply homesickness? 


A British couple, Diana and Arthur, invited them to climb Mount Kenya. Arthur had climbed before and instructed the others in a pompous, snobbish way. He warned Margaret and Patrick about the danger of AMS, Acute Mountain Sickness. When the climbing party arrived on the lower slopes of the mountain, she felt dazed, as if her eyes hurt from looking at a shiny scene. She began to yearn for the sunshine. As the less experienced climber, she was constantly left behind.


When they reached the glacier, all the climbers were clamped onto a guide rope. True to her nature Diana unclipped herself and took off on her own. The guide was too slow. Her “let’s get going” nature impaired her judgment. The tragic scene stays with the reader as well as with Margaret.No longer able to continue the climb, they returned home. Margaret struggled with the realization that these events changed her and her marriage. Patrick doesn’t dare ask, “What did you do today?” It becomes a prickly subject. She must find work or go crazy.


 Taking some of her photographs with her, she became a freelancer for the Kenya Morning Tribune. A tall Asian man came to work at the newspaper and needed a photographer. He asked for Margaret to accompany him on his writing assignments.  She had no idea how it would affect her tottering marriage. She struggled to push thoughts of him away. Inside herself she was falling apart. Something was terribly wrong, but how could she deal with it if she couldn’t analyze it?


On the anniversary of their aborted climb, Patrick felt that it would help put their faltering marriage back together for them to repeat their Mount Kenya expedition and reach the top this time. Margaret agreed, with misgivings, to give their faltering marriage one more chance. All she could recall about the first climb were images of misery.


Margaret asked the guide to allow them a moment to remember Diana when they reached the ravine. This memorial felt like a defining moment. Margaret had lost so many things. When something was there, it was there. When it left, it was gone. But she was learning to live like a member of an African tribe, the Masai. Her lost days felt as if she were trying to swim her way up from the bottom of the pool.


This book was not Shreve’s best. Fans of Shreve’s romance novels look for more intimacy. They hold on to the belief that love overcomes even difficult conflicts. As well, her practice of dropping foreign phrases into the narrative jolts the reader out of the story.