The River King by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The River King is a beautiful novel that fits in the magic realism genre, defined in Wikipedia as “...an aesthetic style or genre of fiction in which magical elements blend with the real world.”
The story is about a wealthy boarding school in Massachusetts and the relationship of its students and faculty with the people of the town. There are elements of arrogance, jealousy, and corruption that pervade the plot, but all of the book is wrapped in a romantic vision of life. There is Carlin Leander who befriends August Pierce but chooses the self centered Harry McKenna for her lover due to his looks and reputation. There is Betsy Chase, the teacher who is engaged to another teacher and is leading what she believes to be a perfect life until Abel Grey, a town police officer comes along. And there are many other relationships that are explored, some current, some as part of the school's history.
Hoffman's writing style suits the magic elements because of its wonderful metaphors and romantic aspect that is always present. Here's a quote from the beginning of the novel, as Hoffman is introducing the students of the Haddan School to the reader:
Each September, when the new students arrived, Annie Howe's roses had an odd effect on certain girls, the sensitive ones who had never been away from home before and were easily influenced. When such girls walked past the brittle canes in the gardens behind St. Anne's, they felt something cold at the base of their spines, a bad case of pins and needles, as though someone were issuing a warning: Be careful who you choose to love and who loves you in return.
Later she brings in more of the magical aspects when Carlin finds gifts left to her by Gus, the soul mate she has lost to the river.
Carlin reached into her pocket and brought forth a small fish, which she placed upon the table. Helen leaned forward for a better look. It was one of those silver minnows found in the Haddan River, small and shimmering and gasping for breath. Helen Davis might have dropped the little fish in a tumbler of water had Midnight not pounced on it and eaten it whole.
In spite of herself, Carlin Laughed. “Did you see that? He ate it.”
“You bad, bad boy,” Helen scolded. “You rascal.”
“I told you Gus left me things,” Carlin said to Abe. “But you didn't believe me.”
Hoffman's writing is wonderful. Her use of language is lovely and her plot weaves many independent stories, all about love and survival, into one, like the rose garden that is entwined throughout the story. I loved the way she balanced one character, Carlin Leander, who pushes the love she feels away from her with another character, Betsy Chase, who cannot resist the love she feels. The ending didn't resolve as well as I had hoped it would, but that was the only flaw I could find. I will be reading more Alice Hoffman books.
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