River of Summer
River of Summer is an excellent first novel which combines outstanding writing with a deeply emotional plot. This book, however, is not for the easily depressed. If the tortured hero and heroine is not your cup of tea, you may not enjoy this one to the fullest.
Zoe Harper has been dumped by her husband, who is sixteen years her senior, in favor of his pregnant mistress. At thirty-nine, she is divorced and faced with the daunting task of starting all over, and she is wounded and angry to the core. Zoe walks away from her successful contracting business, packs her Winnebago, and begins a cross-country drive to visit her younger sister while she figures out what to do.
Somewhere on a reservation in the Utah desert, miles from anywhere, she pops her last Percodan into her mouth just before she comes across a man whose car has died and is now stranded. Zoe does not pick up hitchhikers, so without a second thought she drives on by only to find her Winnebago airborne as she hits something she never saw. Screeching to a halt, she looks back to see the man running toward her. He jumps in before she can say anything, but it does him no good because Zoe sticks to her no-hitchhiker rule and orders him out. As she pulls away she hears him shout and sees him running behind her, but she ignores him, accelerates, and goes on her less-than-merry way.
It is hours and many miles later that she realizes why the man chased her. His duffel bag is still in her vehicle, and inside is a lot of money. After considering her options, she reluctantly turns around and goes back. Against her better judgement, Zoe finally agrees to take this handsome young stranger named Paul Griffin to Moab. This begins an adventure that fills her summer and leaves her forever changed.
Paul is ten years Zoe’s junior, a gourmet cook, great to look at and not bad company, but he is also carrying around a lot of emotional baggage concerning his father and his deceased mother. He tells a number of lies concerning the origin of the money in his possession in an attempt to manipulate Zoe, and this provides plenty of conflict considering Zoe’s past history with a lying and deceiving ex-husband. The difference in their ages is another hurdle Zoe has difficulty clearing, but despite all this, Paul woos her back into the land of the truly living, while Zoe is able to encourage Paul to also resolve the issues that drive him.
This story is all about unhealthy parent/child relationships resulting in emotionally unhealthy adult children who proceed to mess up their own lives as they try to escape their need for the love and approval of their parents. The sadness is multiplied by the skillful way Ms. Gilbert reveals that the parents are just as trapped, loving their children but unable to bridge the chasm that has grown between them and their offspring. “We hurt worst those we most love” is the theme here.
I had a difficult time rating this book. I was not surprised to learn that Ms. Gilbert is an artist, for she paints with words without a single unnecessary stroke. The writing is rich in emotion and metaphor, and the characters, even the secondaries, are well-defined – no cardboard characters here. The plot is well-paced, and there is at least one black moment that is fingernail-chewing suspenseful. I ran the gamut of emotions with this story, laughing out loud at the scene where Zoe tussles with a skunk, and crying at a scene near the end.
My only problem, which is not a problem for many readers, lies in the heaviness of the theme. The only secondary characters who appear in the book are relatives of either Zoe or Paul, and both families are reasonably well off financially, but totally dysfunctional in their relationships with each other. If I had rated the book after the first couple of chapters, it would have been higher due to the quality of the writing. I was so weighed down emotionally by the time I was nearing the end the rating would have been much lower if I had stopped there. If there was one character, even a secondary, who was emotionally healthy and normal, it might have been enough to make a difference.
At the darkest point, right before the end, I still couldn’t see how something positive could be salvaged and still be believable, but Ms. Gilbert works a miracle in pulling it out. Zoe is able to resolve enough of the pain in her life to move on, and the end is quite satisfying, so my rating moved back up.
While those who read to escape emotional pain may want to pass, readers who enjoy experiencing the dark side of love and family through fiction will find a treat in this beautifully written book.