The Shape of Desire - Sharon Shinn This is a love story: quiet, poignant, and heart-wrenching in its intensity. No tropes of fantasy wormed their way into this book, and the only nod to the genre is the nature of the protagonist, Dante. He is a shape-shifter, but unlike werewolves of a galore of other, more conventional shape-shifting novels, Dante can’t choose when he shifts, for how long, or into which animal. It’s not his story anyway. It’s a story of his girlfriend Maria, the woman who loves Dante.
It’s been fifteen years since their relationship started, but its pattern has remained consistent. Each time Dante shifts, he disappears to roam the wilderness, while Maria mourns and worries. Each time he comes back as human, her soul and body rejoice. As the years progress, his human interludes become shorter and shorter. Now they are reduced to a few days a month, but Maria lives for these days: the days of incandescent delight.
The emptiness between his reappearances she fills by working. She works as an accountant (a surprisingly ordinary profession for such a remarkable heroine), and her office friendships and gossips occupy as much of her time as they do of this unique novel. One might think it would be boring, but it’s not, far from it. Prosaic on the surface but piercingly rich in its heart, Maria’s inner life adds colors and depth to her mundane interactions with coworkers.
When her routine is interrupted by terrible killings in the area, perpetrated by an unknown wild animal, Maria’s life is plunged in turmoil. Could Dante be responsible? The horrific suspicions poison her days, and despair taints her nights, but her main concern is for him alone. She loves him so much she would shield him from any danger, lie and cheat for him, ensure his safety with her life, if she has to. Her inner battle between love and doubts is extremely painful, but she doesn’t hesitate for one second. Right or wrong, Dante is her first priority.
And he loves her too. His love for her is just as deep and abiding as Maria’s love for him, although his love is plagued with insecurity. He doesn’t think he deserves her. He is sure she can do better, much better, than to love a beast. And his doubts make him irritable or sometimes even downright cruel towards his beloved. I think that many a man might recognize himself in Shinn’s portrait of Dante.
The novel has several love scenes, and the writer doesn’t shy from erotica, but she never slides to the level of smut. The sexual encounters between Maria and Dante are as beautiful and life-affirming as their love. They seem to thrum with music. They take the reader into the sky, to soar on the wings of desire. They belong to the higher plane than most hot couplings in most romance novels I’ve ever read. And I read a lot of them. But never before did the words of passion and sensuality take my breath away. Never before did I want to cry when I read them.
The novel takes place during the fall, and Shinn’s descriptions of the flaming colors of the trees are nothing short of brilliant. When her clouds wept with rain, I could almost see the raindrops. I could almost hear the howling wind of a November storm, even while I read the book on a warm and sunny July afternoon.
After Shinn’s other fantasy novels, set in imaginary worlds and rife with magic or angels, I thought I would be disappointed by this novel, set in the here and now. But I wasn’t. I loved it just as much as I loved her previous books. She remains my favorite fantasy writer.