Patrick Somerville writes literary fiction… but if you examine the plot of his most recent novel in bright light, what you discover is a crime novel. And not unlike many crime stories, you not only have today’s crime, but you have underlying crimes from the past. What’s different about Somerville’s This Bright River is that layered on top of the mystery and the suspense is a pretty deep frosting of angst. I found the book to be convoluted with a surprisingly high number of disaffected characters and an equally surprising high number of assaults, sexual and otherwise, but it was also quirky, charming, and hard to put down.
Basic plot: Ben Hanson’s just out of jail (mystery #1 – for what?) and hanging at his childhood home in St. Helens, Wisconsin. His dad wants him to help get his uncle’s home up north ready to sell. Doing so brings up the past for Ben; his favorite cousin Wayne froze to death there as a teenager. (Mystery #2 – why?) He runs into his old friend from high school, Lauren. She kinda had a crush on him, back in the day. She’s working at the local vet’s, despite the fact that she’s a medical doctor. She seems weird and little spooked. (Mystery #3 – what happened to her?) He also reconnects with his sister, Haley, who shows up unexpectedly without husband or kids. Something’s up there, too. (Mystery #4 – what could this be?)
By the time it all gets resolved, we know what Ben went to jail for, why he’s going to be rich even though he rejected his trust fund, what happened to Haley as a teenager that caused cousin Wayne to kill a man, who helped him hide the body, how Lauren’s physician husband Gaslighted her and how he undertakes to kill her and Ben both, how Haley’s husband got caught soliciting a transvestite prostitute (figured I’d give that plot point away!), and how Ben became a hero. There are additional adventures (Ben’s sexcapades with the local realtor, for example), but that’s enough for now.
Somerville has a deft hand with dialogue, keeps the story flowing in all the many directions it needs to flow in, creates intriguing and likeable characters, so even if you say “Good Lord, I can’t believe it!” while you’re reading, you’re still having a pretty good time.
Reviews of This Bright River have been mixed. I’m not surprised. Janet Maslin’s review in the New York Times made much of the labyrinthine tributaries of the book’s plot, and as Somerville later wrote, her review was “not positive.” However, Maslin made a factual error in her review, and not a little one, either. Somerville’s response to the negative review, and to the subsequent correction is told very amusingly in this article in Salon, titled “Thank you for killing my novel.” I admire Somerville even more for his honesty. As he notes, he’d like to think that Maslin’s error negates every other not-so-positive things she said… but it didn’t.
His impassioned perspective: “The goddamned thing rambles, I know! It’s big and unruly and everywhere! But that’s why I love it! It had to be that way! But some people won’t love it! And hopefully some will!”