Alice Hoffman,
The River King
(G.P. Putnam's & Sons, 2000)

The River King is a memorable novel, not for its somewhat predictable characters or for its rather lame plot, but for its atmosphere. The reader floats amidst watery imagery, feeling the tug of the current and filtering the story through an intoxicating underwater sensation. Alice Hoffman creates the experience of drowning with such alluring words that struggling to the surface barely seems an option.

Of course, then the unsatisfying and predictable end of the book arrives, and one realizes there's not that much substance below the surface. But it was an intriguing journey, drenched with watery portraits and fragrant symbols.

The River King is set primarily in the prestigious Haddan School, built precariously close to the Haddan River, in Haddan, Massachusetts. The townies despise the aloof prep school students and faculty, and the school administration reciprocates by buying the town's silence whenever something embarrassing happens, such as the drowning of a freshman loner.

Of course, there's one good cop, Abel Grey, whose life has been a series of bad decisions ever since his older brother's teenaged death. His story is interwoven with those of the pretty new photography instructor, Betsy Chase, whose pictures capture more than what's visible; scholarship swimmer Carlin Leander, who boasts both poverty and integrity; and August Pierce, a budding magician who refuses to bow to the powerful elite. The fate of these characters is rarely in doubt as this mystery unfolds.

There seems to be a more intriguing story involving Annie Howe, the country girl who married the domineering headmaster two generations before and only escaped from her marriage by hanging herself from the rafters of the current girls' dorm. Her tale is linked with Helen Davis, the quirky history teacher, who shared the campus and Annie's husband.

The best writing in The River King involves the sometimes murky, sometimes crystalline river and the efforts of many gardening enthusiasts, living and dead. It's fun to clamber among the thorny roses and shiver by the watery banks -- if you don't mind a few gaps in the plot and characters who will eventually come around to the obvious.

[ by Julie Bowerman ]

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