First I must tell you that RIVEN ROCK is a very, very good book. It is, perhaps, T. C. Boyle's best novel yet.
And second, I must tell you that it is almost impossible to describe. As this is a review, I'm going to try to give you some sense of what it is about, but if I had my druthers I would simply say --- "just read it" --- and type the words "The End."
At base, RIVEN ROCK is a novel about love and sex and the way they work, or sometimes don't --- and about what can happen when they do work, or sometimes don't.
It is the most unusual love story you will ever read, and it is all the more fascinating because it involves real people whose lives Boyle has fictionalized. RIVEN ROCK is not just a story --- it is an entire world captured between the covers of a book.
Stanley McCormick was the youngest son of Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the mechanical reaper and scion of Chicago society. Katherine Dexter was a Boston socialite, the first woman to graduate from MIT with a degree in the sciences and an early leader in the women's suffrage movement.
They met, fell in love and married in 1904. It was the match of the century. But for reasons that you will have to read the book to discover, their marriage was never consummated.
Shortly after the wedding, brilliant buy high-strung Stanley suffered a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed as both a schizophrenic and a sex maniac. He was sent to Riven Rock, his family's estate near Santa Barbara, California. He remained locked in that house with a group of male caretakers for more than twenty years.
Katherine --- still a virgin --- continued her work with the suffrage movement for which she became quite famous. But she never stopped hoping that Stanley would be cured and that they would again be together. Each year she travelled to California hoping that Stanley's health had improved.
Boyle has woven three separate stories into RIVEN ROCK. Along with Stanley and Katherine's stories, he gives us the tales of Stanley's caretakers. The most notable of these is Eddie O'Kane.
But I do RIVEN ROCK an injustice with this paltry outline of a book that overflows with rich characters and a plot with more twists and turns than a mountain trail. It is written in phrases and sentences that will dazzle you with their brilliance.
Boyle has an appreciation for the absurdity of life. He is a master of all he creates, and RIVEN ROCK is the best of his creations.
Reviewed by Judith Handchuh on January 23, 2011