From the best-selling author of The Dovekeepers, The River King confirms Alice Hoffman as “one of our quirkiest and most interesting novelists” (Jane Smiley, USA Today).
People tend to stay in their place in the town of Haddan. The students at the prestigious prep school don’t mix with locals; even within the school, hierarchy rules, as freshman and faculty members find out where they fit in and what is expected of them. But when a body is found in the river behind the school, a local policeman will walk into this enclosed world and upset it entirely. A story of surface appearances and the truths submerged below.
There are two things any reader can count on when coming to Alice Hoffman: her prose and a remarkable empathy for those who live on the fringes of society. In her 13th novel, the author turns both to good account. Set in a tony private school located in a small New England town, The River King traces an intricate weave of intersecting lives over the course of a year. The Haddan School, founded in 1858, has long been the scene of tragedy and wonder: during its first year a tremendous storm flooded the grounds, and more than a century later “frogs can be found in the plumbing; linens and clothes stored in closets have a distinctly weedy odor, as if each article had been washed in river water and never thoroughly dried.” Then there are the glorious roses planted by Annie Howe, a villager who married the headmaster and later hanged herself; these flowers have an unusual effect on sensitive girls. “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.”
A cogent warning indeed, for as in all of Hoffman’s novels, the question of whom one chooses to love and who loves in return is the crux of the matter. The River King revolves around triangles. First there is Betsy Chase, a young photography teacher at the Haddan School who has gotten herself engaged–almost accidentally–to a fellow faculty member, even as she is inexorably drawn to Abel Grey, a town policeman. Then there are Carlin Leander, a scholarship student, and her best friend, Gus Pierce. While Carlin is able to fit in, even attracting the interest of the most popular boy on campus, Gus is a defiant outcast, a tall skinny kid in a long black overcoat “who viewed his own life as a prison sentence and experienced his existence much as a condemned man might.” Carlin’s romance with the charismatic, cruel Harry McKenna creates a rupture between her and Gus, and fuels a mean-spirited practical joke with horrific consequences. In the aftermath of tragedy, each character’s heart, conscience, and courage is tested in unexpected ways.
Hoffman spins her web of love and heartbreak and transcendence with a sure hand, and in the process creates characters so palpably human in all their petty flaws and small instances of heroism that one almost expects them to step out of the book and into the room. Indeed, if there is a flaw in The River King, it is that Alice Hoffman doesn’t always trust the magic inherent in her characters, relying a little too heavily at times on somewhat precious invocations of the otherworldly. But this is a minor defect in an otherwise satisfying novel, one that will keep the reader spellbound by its emotional complexity and compelling story. –Alix Wilber