Monday, January 9, 2017
Book Review: The River at Night
When I was about five or six years old, I got lost in the woods with a couple of friends. With the hindsight of adulthood, I realize it was probably only an acre or two of yet-undeveloped land in what would become the bustling thoroughfare of Farewell Road in Columbia, Maryland, but in my mind’s eye, those trees stretched for miles. It got dark, and started raining, and when my friends and I finally made it out onto the sidewalk, we dropped to our knees and thanked G-d.
I’ve been wary of nature ever since. When the first Blair Witch film came out, I wondered why the filmmakers had bothered with a witch. Losing the map in the middle of the woods was scary enough.
This brings me to Erica Ferencik’s latest, The River at Night. Ferencik made her name as a satirist, although her previous book was a thriller. Her disconnected history serves as a warning that River will be equally disjointed. Its protagonist is Winifred Allen, and her story is straight out of women’s fiction. Mourning the death of her marriage and her younger brother, stuck in a commercial art job when she should be painting, Wini is ripe for a vacation. But the vacation her long-time best friend/queen bee Pia offers isn’t one she had in mind. Rather than relaxing at the beach, Pia wants Wini and the other women of their group, Rachel and Sandra, to hike through the untamed Maine forest and go white-water rafting with a hunky young guide. Even though Wini is the most tender-footed of the four, she doesn’t want to be left behind, and begrudgingly agrees to go. After a harrowing trek to the river, Pia reverts to “Mean Girls” form by screwing the guide within earshot of the rest of the group. They are pissed. It’s against the rules of feminism!
Then things take a turn. Twenty-five miles in the middle of nowhere, and what had been a dangerous vacation becomes a life-or-death crisis. At this point, Ferencik does a good job of seguing her women’s-fiction type novel into a man-versus-nature thriller. A chapter or so later, though, Ferencik decides to add Deliverance to the mix. (I’m not the only reviewer who cites this work.)
At that point, she lost me. While the writing is top-notch, with a fast pace and consistent characters (although Rachel and Sandra seemed a little too similar to each other), the addition of the Deliverance-type folks made me roll my eyes. Perhaps Ferencik didn’t think her “lost in the woods” tale was compelling enough without them. (Maybe she never read Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, about another girl lost in the Maine woods, no scary hillbilly types required.) This is unfortunate, because she does such strong job describing the dangers of the river and the forest, that no other dangers are necessary.
There were a few coincidences that I found annoying as well. It’s a general rule of thumb that if something is set up before it’s necessary, it’s not a coincidence, but some set-ups are just too obvious.
On the plus side, Wini’s character arc was well done and subtle, at least till the end.
Overall, despite its issues, The River at Night is a good read for anyone who considers a rest stop off of I-95 to be too much nature. It also makes a great gift for anyone who’s trying to convince you to go camping or otherwise participate in dangerous “natural” activities.
Thanks to Wunderkind PR for the book in exchange for an honest review.