07 February 2010

Eternal on the Water

I Got a First Look at Barnes & Noble.  Get Your Copy Now

I received an advance of Joseph Monninger's Eternal on the Water from the Barnes and Noble First Look Book Club programEternal on the Water does have an interesting premise - a husband and wife must make a difficult choice when she is diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disease - so it sounded interesting.  I've also only ever missed one First Look book and that was when they did two at once and you could only pick one.  So I signed up, promptly got behind in reading because Flannery O'Connor's short stories weren't being kind to me, and finally finished Eternal on the Water the other night.

Monninger has a lovely writing style, very in tune with the natural setting of rural New England, and it fits with the narrator's (Cobb) initial goal in the book of writing an essay about Thoreau and his wife's (Mary) occupation as a corvid biologist.  Interwoven throughout the story are many different folk tales surrounding crows and a few about bears (an old legend has it that bears turn into people when they want to come close to the fire so it becomes a running joke throughout the novel).  Thoreau's Walden is fequently invoked and I kept thinking of it while reading Eternal on the Water (even though I've only ever read part of Walden).  There's a also a very lovely sequence when visiting Mary's brother in Indonesia; the nature theme is continued because he is heavily involved in coral reef and sea turtle conservation. 

The bulk of the book spans a single year following Mary and Cobb's meeting.  Once symptoms of Mary's disease (Huntington's disease - an autosomally dominant genetic illness) manifest Monninger speeds up time, only hitting highlights so that the last years of Mary and Cobb's time together are compressed into a chapter; I'm still not quite sure how many years Mary and Cobb were together.  Monninger draws out Mary's final days and his writing makes a very touching scene.

What I could have dispensed with was the "present day" scene that began and ended the book.  Cobb narrates the story of his life with Mary in flashback and I find that the whole "tell-the-end-then-explain-what-happened-to-the-reader-for-350-pages" is getting a bit overdone.  Because we know all the particulars in the first five pages it really becomes a struggle to stay with the narrative.  I think it is a testament to the quality of Monninger's writing that I was able to stay with the narrative and admire the work.  I think this would have been a very powerful novel using just Cobb's narration alone but Eternal on the Water is a very lovely book as it is now.

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