Great Writing, Great Characters

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Thank you to BookishFirst and Emily Bestler Books (Atria) for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

One chilly night, a four-year-old girl turns up at a tavern on the Thames. Everyone thinks she has drowned, until she opens her eyes. No one is sure who this girl is--she isn’t talking. And there are two girls, approximately the same age as the one who has appeared, who are missing. Two different families hope to claim the girl, but neither is quite sure to whom she belongs. What unfolds is a mystery, full of storytelling wonder, that will have you growing acquainted with great characters from beginning to end. I really liked Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield for its atmosphere, writing, and character development. I felt that the story was a little long, but the overall ending was excellent and brought most of the book full-circle.

This book has a great premise, and there are several digressive storylines throughout the book, but not a lot of plot. What “action” there is tends to be slow-moving and tangential to the central story. The way Setterfield intertwines different tales and stories and characters is one of my favorite aspects of her writing. She does a lot of that here, but while most of it is impressive, it grows a little cumbersome for the reader. All of that said, there is value in pushing through the “slower” parts to reach the resolution.

Once Upon a River is chock-full of characters, all with very unique personalities--a testament to Setterfield’s ability to develop great characters in her books. At times, I felt that there were almost too many characters. It’s rare to read a book that isn’t high fantasy and feel like you need to list out the people you meet and who they are. With this book, I felt that was almost necessary. I enjoyed the complexity the different characters added to the story, but it was definitely hard to keep track of who was who. This book is more character development than action-packed plot, but readers must be prepared to get to know a lot of the people from this world.

What draws me back to Setterfield every time is her writing style. This book, in particular, does a great job of “breaking the fourth wall,” which leads the reader to feel like Setterfield is speaking directly to them about the book. Her tone is whimsical, but not too elevated, and the character dialogue feels authentic. I especially enjoyed some of the chapters that were individual stories about specific characters. These little vignettes within the larger plot were fun, quick, and well-done. I found all of the writing in this book elegant and lovely.

As a standalone, this book is excellent. However, when I had finished reading it and started reflecting on Setterfield’s canon, I noticed some uncomfortable parallels. It seems that, in this new book, Setterfield is sticking fairly close to previous themes she has explored: child identities and death. The “twist” in this book was very similar to the twist in The Thirteenth Tale, and some of the final thoughts are replicated from Bellman & Black. Because of this, the reveals were less shocking, and the message felt repetitive. I’m not sure if this actually a “problem” I have with the book or not, because often writers explore similar themes in their works over their careers. I will say, though, that I felt some of the similarities hurt the significance of this book for me.

All that being said, I still think this is a good book. I liked it more than Bellman & Black, but not quite as much as The Thirteenth Tale. The story is slow, but ultimately engaging, and the writing is amazing. It is a fun premise that leads to a mystical ending, bridging the gap between reality and magic. I would recommend this book to Setterfield fans, for sure. I’d also recommend as an introduction to her writing, if new readers want to try her books. Finally, I’d recommend Once Upon a River to magical realism/literary fiction fans who enjoy slow-burn stories with great character development.