Sunday, October 7, 2012

This Bright River, by Patrick Somerville

Ben Hanson and Lauren Sheehan are thirty-somethings who have retreated to their small hometown in Wisconsin. Both have been betrayed--Ben by his girlfriend and business partner, Lauren by her husband. Ben was also an addict, who wasted a substantial trust fund and spent time in prison. His wealthy father talks him into returning to St. Helens to fix up his late uncle's house for sale (the parents moved to the Chicago burbs after Ben and his sister Haley were grown up). While cleaning up the basement of that home, he comes across some papers that belonged to his cousin Wayne, who died mysteriously at a cabin on Michigan's Upper Peninsula some 18 years ago. He begins to look into his cousin's death--and to become involved with Lauren.

Lauren was a medical resident who spent time in Chad working in a refugee camp. After seeing an mass killing at the camp, she and another doctor leave Chad for Switzerland. Despite some misgivings about him, Lauren marries him. A year later, she flees her husband, suffers a breakdown, and returns to St. Helens, where she works at a coffee shop and interns at a veterinarian's office. Ben is the first person to whom she feels any connection.

Enter her husband. First Ben and Lauren run into him--perhaps coincidentally--in Madison. Then he follows them to the cabin on the UP, where Ben is supposed to be disposing of his uncle's ashes. A violent confrontation occurs. Meanwhile, Ben also unravels the mystery of Wayne's death, which also results in the uncovering of several family secrets.

The review of This Bright River that appeared in The New York Times described the book as treading the "middle ground between the pot-boiling, page-turning mystery and the novel of Big Ideas." For me, the book tread that ground for awhile, but the ending pushed it over the pot-boiling ledge. In addition, the way in which Somerville handled his shifting narrators was confusing (and I generally like books with multiple narrators)--at one point he even inserts parenthetically "(This is Lauren,) What? Is this supposed to suggest to us that Lauren and Ben are co-authoring a book? There's no other clues to such a conceit, so I have to conclude this is just major awkwardness!

Favorite passage:
I suppose I had come to believe the opposite of what moving on implied: there is no actual flight from history, and trying to eliminate it does nothing but increase the speed at which it chases you. 

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