Monday, January 14, 2019

Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield
Published December 2018 by Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Source: my ecopy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed.

Those who dwell on the river bank apply all their ingenuity to solving the puzzle of the girl who died and lived again, yet as the days pass the mystery only deepens. The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? And to whom does she belong? But answers proliferate nonetheless.

Three families are keen to claim her. A wealthy young mother knows the girl is her kidnapped daughter, missing for two years. A farming family reeling from the discovery of their son’s secret liaison, stand ready to welcome their granddaughter. The parson’s housekeeper, humble and isolated, sees in the child the image of her younger sister. But the return of a lost child is not without complications and no matter how heartbreaking the past losses, no matter how precious the child herself, this girl cannot be everyone’s. Each family has mysteries of its own, and many secrets must be revealed before the girl’s identity can be known.

My Thoughts:
I chose to read this book solely based on Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale having been one of my favorite books the year I read it. After finishing this one, I realized, in truth, I can't remember what that first book was about. I looked it up. I have almost no recollection of it. I fear this book is going to suffer the same fate.

It's not that I didn't enjoy the book. There was a lot about it that I liked quite a lot. I quite enjoyed the way all of the characters' lives intertwined and the stories came together. Life on the river, the time period, the mystery, the science of the period, and Setterfield's characters all appealed to me.

There was also so much in this book that seems unnecessary. Much is made early on of the storytelling that has made The Swan renowned on the river and Setterfield returns to that throughout the book but it largely felt extraneous. The fact that storytelling at the inn is its claim to fame plays no real part in the story line. I was never sure, either, as to whether or not there was an element of the mystical at play. Was this meant to be a book with "real" otherworldliness at play or a book where the characters just believed in that? In the end, I think I knew which way Setterfield was leaning but the part of me that doesn't go much for otherworldliness in books, except when it's done really well, wished it had been clearer.

If I were to give numerical ratings to books, this one would fall right in the middle. We tend to dismiss books that fall there, looking instead for the books that are exceptional. But why do we act like books that are "good" aren't good enough? Before I started blogging, I was perfectly satisfied to read a book that was good. Maybe this one won't stick with me years from now, but I mostly enjoyed it while I was reading it and there's something to be said for that.

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