Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield Reviewed by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield. Washington Square Press/Simon & Schuster, 2018. 464 pages; $17.00 (paperback); reading level: Adult

Centering her 1887 tale around the Swan, an inn on the River Thames, Setterfield goes to great lengths to insist that this is an old-fashioned story: The first chapter is entitled “The Story Begins…” and the opening words are “There was once…” Boundaries between “dreams and…lived experience, the dead and living…the past and the present” are porous and a suspension of disbelief is required right from the opening scene, when a mysterious, battered man bursts through the doors of the Swan on the night of the winter solstice with an apparently dead child in his arms. The story winds, rushes, and meanders like the Thames—to which the author repeatedly compares it—and is fed by as many tributaries: Three people claim the child—who remains mute after she’s revived—and several more would gladly take her in, but the girl herself seems animated by only one thing: the river. It takes pages of backstory and some forced plotting to lay the groundwork and then wrap things up with a “Happily Ever After.” The writing is elegant, the common problem which the child solves for each of the characters—being stuck and unable to move forward—is compelling, and it’s a perfect read for anyone who just wants to get away from it all. But the book bogs down a bit under the weight of so many plot threads.

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Author

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