You always know when you're in Alice Hoffman territory. It's not that she's predictable, but there are certain things that her fans expect from her work. These include lots of atmosphere, suspenseful plotting, lots of fierce and desirous lovemaking, and a hodgepodge of characters thrown together in search of some unattainable truth. So as not to disappoint those of us who have followed her career from day one, Hoffman has brought us THE RIVER KING, yet another in her ever-growing list of astutely passionate and fantastical storylines.
The small town of Haddan, Massachusetts, has been divided in half, right down the middle, thanks to a freak storm in its long-gone-by history. This strange line, supposedly running down the center of Main Street, separates the natives from the silver-spooned attendants of the prestigious Haddan School. Those born in the village loathe and fear the students, and the students are usually far too self-involved to give the town much thought. However, as it would happen, a Halloween night creates the perfect background for a strange and unsolvable death. Thus, as the two sides of town join together to try to figure out this puzzle, the town's own somewhat complicated history is revealed.
Carlin Leander, the 15-year-old girl who is as loyal as she is proud, loses a friend and learns nasty life lessons; Betsy Chase, a woman desperately running from her own destiny, yearns for escape in the face of an impending marriage; August Pierce, a smart boy with an overactive imagination, discovers a heroic side to himself; Abel Grey, the police officer, refuses to let unspeakable actions --- both past and present --- slide by without notice. It's this set of characters, haunted individually and together by a town whose past conjures up phantom smells of roses, that pulls together to make THE RIVER KING one of the most delicious books Hoffman has ever produced.
It is not just the elegant language, the fairy tale settings, or for that matter, the fairy tale stories that make THE RIVER KING such a dreamy, dreamlike novel. It is also the raging passion that flows through the characters, much like the river flows through town, that keeps the reader engaged page after page, even when the going gets particularly gruesome. The great desiring of humankind, the need for love, the sense of self, the tricks of the ego, and the surrenders of the heart all find space between these murky-blue covers. THE RIVER KING is a story that indulges in the romantic nature of every reader's soul and the neatly plotted storylines that make Hoffman's characters reflect so much of ourselves in them.
THE RIVER KING is a fine return for Alice Hoffman to the novel. This is the medium she belongs in, and we are happy to have her here.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 23, 2011