Anita Shreve is a novelist whose phenomenal sales have allowed her to toast her critical success with caviar and champagne, with such books as ''The Weight of Water'' and Oprah's Book Club pick ''The Pilot's Wife.'' But her latest, The Last Time They Met, is as overwritten, gloppy, and lazy as the Danielle Steelesque title would suggest.
In her 50s, recently widowed and alienated from her children, popular poet Linda Fallon remeets her former lover, the haunted (natch) and brilliant (double natch) fellow poet Thomas Janes. Readers who found Janes an artfully rendered character in Shreve's dark emotional thriller ''The Weight of Water'' will wish he had never come ashore from ''Water'''s cursed sailing trip, if only to avoid the embarrassment of descriptions like the following: ''As Linda watches Thomas emerge from the water in wet boxers, she remarks, 'They hung low on his thighs when he came out and molded his genitals, which had grown longer in the intervening years.'''
It's a given that since this is a romance novel, Linda and Thomas must revisit, rehash, and resolve a past that involves car accidents, Kenya, Catholicism, incest, the death of children, and any other horror that Shreve can pull out of her guide to a miserable life grab bag. ''Last Time'' has a brief renaissance when Shreve switches to Janes' voice; writing as a man, she manages to lose much of the flowery prose that lends the book a hysterical, shrill pitch. But then it's back to both characters in an exchange that reminds us why all love letters should remain private, followed by a nonsensical and ludicrous conclusion.