Every now and then, I will read a book that is good in every way but one. That aspect will bug me so much that it makes me like the overall book less. This is a dear shame, yet I cannot excuse that element. This is the case of Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield.
Once Upon a River begins on Winter Solstice in 1870s-1880s England. On that day, as people tell stories at an ancient inn near the river Thames, a wounded man holding a still little girl bursts into the building. After some time, the girl miraculously comes back to life, but no one knows who she is, where she came from, and who she belongs to. Three families believe that she is theirs. They are a wealthy family whose daughter was kidnapped two years ago, a farming family who recently found out about their eldest son’s liaison and believe the girl is their granddaughter, and the parson’s housekeeper, who believes she is her sister. Heartbreak occurs as the girl cannot be everyone’s. Secrets among the families are revealed before the identity of the girl is known.
Let me start with what I adore about this novel. I enjoy that it is a fairy tale. In a lot of those stories, the impossible happens, and there is always a happy ending. Once Upon A River has the girl who is brought back to life, and it has several happy endings, but they are not what you think. It is disappointing that some reviewers had to warn others that it is a fairy tale like it is a bad thing. Fairy tales are not just for children. They touch everybody regardless of age.
I also liked how Setterfield effectively weaves all the stories into one common thread. This is especially true as it is revealed that one character actually brings all of the families together, and it is not the girl. Reviewers are also correct that it jumps from one character to another, but I was able to follow it all like how a river meanders and flows into one way.
Now here is the part that rubbed me the wrong way. Setterfield likes to be verbose. There were plenty of instances, in which something that could easily be described with one sentence was detailed with at least one paragraph. It was as if she liked to hear the sound of her own voice. This really irked me because as she would go on, I would think, “Ok, get on with the story!”
It did not help that my frustration with this digression occurred at the beginning, in which Setterfield would mainly talk about the power of stories and storytelling. The beginning is often where many readers form their opinions about the book, whether they are doing it consciously or not. All in all, Setterfield’s habit of doing this was the lone aspect of Once Upon A River that prevented me from voting for it for Best Historical Fiction in the 2019 Goodreads Awards.
This is such a shame because Juliet Stevenson – an English actress from films like “Truly, Madly, Deeply”, “Emma”, and “Bend it Like Beckham” – narrates the book, and she does a wonderful job! Even though there are some male characters that that sounded very similar, most characters are fully realized voice-wise. Stevenson really shines when she is voicing characters with truly distinct personalities like Lily White, the timid housekeeper; her cruel and controlling step-brother Victor; the noble Robert Armstrong, a biracial farmer who has managed to make a living despite the prejudice he has encountered; and Jonathan, the innocent son of the innkeeper who has Down’s Syndrome (even though it is not referred to that way).
Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield moves like a gently flowing river. For every tributary it encounters, the story immediately blends it in with the main theme with both ultimately following one path. However, it is too impressed with its storytelling abilities, which made me enjoy it less. If I were to recommend it, I would do so for readers who like fairy tales and gothic fiction as well as to people who have read Setterfield’s previous books like The Thirteenth Tale. However, I would give this warning when referring unfamiliar readers to this novel, and that is to be patient. It likes to meander up its own source, especially at the beginning. If you are able to go with the flow, then you might like it more than I did.
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