The River King by Alice Hoffman
The book is set in Haddan, a small town in Massachusetts situated on the river Haddan, the town’s mystical waterway. The comunity is divided into two parts: permanent inhabitants, born and bred there, and people working at the Haddan School, a prestigious institution for rich kids. These two parts never intermingle; it seems they are more secluded from each other than the Cappulets and the Montagues in Verona. We get to know the rules through the eyes of four characters: Carlin Leander, a fifteen-year-old swimming scholarship girl who intends never to return to her neglecting mother, Betsy Chase, a young photography teacher just engaged but still unsure about what is best for her future, August Pierce, a troubled loner who strives to survive his first year at school where nobody tolerates his weirdness and Abel Grey, a very handsome policeman who tends to be too inquisitive for his own good and too distracted to endure any long-term relationship. The narration swirls in loops and circles, not unlike the currents of a river, taking us forwards and backwards in time. We find out what disaster of a marriage Annie Howe, the wife of the first headmaster, dr. George Howe, had to endure just because she dared to cross the invisible barrier – she was a local girl and her husband belonged to a better society.
When the body of August is found in the river by local boys playing truant, a number of events is set in motion. Both communities are shocked but for different reasons. As the policemen have to visit the school several times, Abel meets Betsy and falls for her with unexpected intensity (male menopause approaching?). On the other hand Carlin can’t find peace of mind, accusing herself of pushing poor August into suicide – she has started to go out with another boy although she knew August was hopelessly in love with her and she reciprocated the feeling to some extend. Was it really a suicide, though? Only Abel, struggling with the shadow of his own brother’s suicide, takes murder into account. As usual, nobody seems to be really interested in solving the mystery (if there is one, that is). Will the maverick policeman have enough stamina to prove his theory against everybody else? Will Betsy break her engagement with a very promising young history professor to follow her true love? The story unravels as people make their choices among half-domesticated swans and the scent of roses, Annie Howe’s all time favourite flowers.
The pace of narration, rather languid and dreamlike at the beginning, unexpectedly drags you into the world of small town weirdness and keeps you firmly within, although it is meandering too much now and then. The language is really elegant, the descriptions – almost hauntingly alluring. You simply find yourself on a river bank under willows listening to the flow of water and watching the waves – a relaxing experience but not without pangs of sorrow now and then. The story of Annie Howe’s life and the struggles of other romantic couples, especially Carlin and Gus, were presented in a truly piercing way.
If you are into crime mysteries and suspense more than romance and mysticism (it is my case), this novel won’t meet all of your expectations. The death of August Pierce would appear suspicious even for a beginner detective in his or her teens with just one good eye. You only wonder why it took Abel so long to solve it (right, he was deeply in love and his methods were rather unorthodox but still…). What’s more, the character of Abel never persuaded me completely – the guy is so wrapped up in his own problems and so inapt for leading a normal life that you must start wondering if Betsy really notices in him something more than just gorgeous body and blue eyes .Also some of the supposed main points of the story were never fully explained – when an author does such a thing the book leaves me always tetchy.
I am a bit conflicted about this book but I might give it another chance to charm me. You must be in the right mood to read such a many-layered morality tale and the season is an important factor too. Summer is fine, autumn/fall would be even better, though.