I’ve long been an admirer of Charles Martin’s skill as a writer and it pains me to find myself so far behind in availing myself of his newer titles. Where the River Ends has been on bookstore shelves since July 2008, dangnabbit, and I just now finished it. If I had a dime for every time I’ve lamented that there is so little time and so many books, I could retire and read all I want. On a beach. With a frosty pitcher of sangria on the little table next to me.
What I like most about Charles Martin is his stories have the emotional pull of Nicholas Sparks, but none of the cookie cutter monotony. No offense, Sparks fans. Cookies are great. If you just like cookies. I want something less predictable. And I found it with this one.
In Where The River Ends, Martin gives us the tragic romance upon which Sparks has made his millions but it felt fresh and uncornered. I did not cry like the sticker on the front told me I would, but I connected with Martin’s characters and perhaps would have cried had there been no sticker. (I rebel at being told how to respond to a story. I’ll be okay if I have to improvise a tissue out of my bathrobe tie, I promise).
I am spoiling nothing by telling you the story is about a young wife dying of cancer and the husband who loves her. And the continued set-up is also Sparksian – he’s a kind-hearted blue-collar starving artist, she’s a Southern débutante, former model and the daughter of a senator. You maybe can already guess the Senator doesn’t like Starving Artist one little bit. When beautiful Southern débutante can’t beat the cancer that is killing her, the husband she loves and whom Daddy hates will surely come to blows of one kind or another as her farewell draws near.
The plot itself isn’t overly unique. But the people are. And oh, that river. . .
I love making my setting a character in my story and I like trying to pull it off so that no one can tell that’s what I’ve done – they just feel like they are IN the setting, breathing it, living it. And that’s what Martin does with the river in this story. Starving Artist takes Dying Wife on one last trip down the River in a canoe. In secret. No one knows where they are. Daddy makes trouble of course. Dying Wife gets sicker, Starving Artist risks all to give her this one last request, Daddy is on the warpath with search crews and sniffing dogs and the mighty River is neither benevolent or malevolent. It neither protects nor rejects. It is ambivalent, which is not to say it plays no part. That would mean it is invisible. It is intentionally gently ambivalent. There were times I wanted to yell to that River, “Would it kill ya to give these two people a break?” (yes, they met obstacles on the way), and times when I wanted to say, “That was nice of you,” but actually the River was just being the River – flowing out to sea, all the time, every day. Constant. Its banks may rise and fall and floodwaters can mess things up for awhile but in time, the River will morph back into what it was before rain expected too much of it.
The River as a backdrop for this couple’s journey, for the Starving Artist’s sacrificial last act of love, and as a metaphor for the things we cannot change though we give it everything we’ve got, made for a compelling read. I felt wet when I was done. And not from tears. Better than tears. I felt like I’d been in the River. And was wet with it. Nice. . .
Now to get my hands on The Mountain Between Us . . .