Thursday, December 31, 2009

Review of the Day: Blue River

Blue River is the story of two estranged brothers, semi-derelict Lawrence and his successful younger brother Edward. When Lawrence shows up bedraggled on Edward’s doorstep, the uncomfortable reunion inspires Edward’s lengthy reminiscence on their shared history and reasons for the long estrangement.

Ethan Canin is an excellent writer. But his debut novel suffers, as so many first novels do, from trying too hard to tell a story without getting close enough to the story to do it justice. He is like a baker trying to make bread by smoothing and tapping and describing the dough instead of really getting in there to knead, pound, and stretch it.

Several devices keep Canin – and his readers – distanced from the story. First, instead of letting the story itself give the book strength, he strives for images. His words keep getting in the way of what he is trying to say. Sentences such as, “Sometimes it seemed to me that you had planned your own life, Lawrence, that you had sown it in rows like a field, so that later, in exactitude, it would appear before you” have more tone than substance.

Second, most of the book – the section on the brothers’ history – is narrated by Edward as if he is talking to Lawrence. As shown in the sentence above, the first-person narration is directed at a particular “you” who is Lawrence. This is an off-putting technique because it is like listening to a conversation about a story instead of watching the story directly. There is a layer between the story and the reader that does not need to be there.

Finally, and fundamentally, Blue River is no more than the “backstory” for what could be a very interesting book. The history of the two boys and the reasons they have been alienated from each other is only marginally interesting, and takes only about 200 pages. The more compelling story is the one that would start where this book ends – what now? How do the two reunite as adults, given what has kept them apart for years? That is a story that would be difficult and complicated, but more satisfying for a reader. Canin may have done better by weaving the history from Blue River into a longer book that told the “what now?” story.


my review of Canin's America, America (which I liked much more)

(If you have reviewed this or any other Canin book, please leave a comment with a link and I will list it here.)


This was my my "blue" choice for the Colorful Reading Challenge.  I have now completed the challenge -- in the nick of time, since this was the last day.


  1. Congratulations on finishing the challenge! E-mail me about guest posting on my blog, which is the prize for finishing the challenge.

    I like the way you associated the telling of a story with baking bread. That is such a great way to describe what needs to occur. Great advice for writers and wannabe writers as well!

  2. Thanks Rebecca! I'll think about a guest post. Interesting idea. Hmmmm . . . .

  3. Canin is an author I want to read, but think I'll start with America, America. Thanks for the review.

  4. JaAnn -- I really enjoyed America, America. He used the same kind of moody and atmospheric language, but there was a lot more to the story.


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