Once Upon a River

Once Upon a RiverOnce Upon a River by Diane Setterfield
Published by Atria/Emily Bestler Books on January 8th 2019
Pages: 480
ISBN: 0743298071
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On a deep, dark night at an inn located on the Thames river, the regulars have gathered to swap stories, drink and unwind from their days. The evening is like any other night at the inn, until an injured stranger walked in carrying what they believe to be a doll in his arms and collapses. After calling upon the local midwife/nurse, they learn that the “doll” is a young girl. A young girl who appears to be dead after drowning in the river -yet lives!

No one recognizes the man or the child. Word gets out, as word often does, and the villagers begin whispering their theories. There are also families out there with missing daughters. Those who desperately want their child back, those who want to see this four-year girl to determine if she is their missing loved one. The girl never appears to recognize anyone, nor does she speak. She looks longingly at the river as if waiting for something or someone.

Like the Thames river, this book flowed. There are a lot of characters in this book and after a couple of chapters I had them straight. Setterfield has built a community of characters who have their own backstories and history. All the families and back stories are important. So, no skimming! This book felt epic in nature. It’s also atmospheric with the river, the rain, the countryside. I could imagine everything that was happening. We are not told the year, but this took place after photography was invented, so I placed this during the mid-1800’s.

As with all books, there will be characters the reader likes and those we are not meant to like. Armstrong and Rita were my favorites. I loved Rita’s inquisitive mind and her dedication to science and conducting experiments to make sense of things medically such as how does cold water affect the heart rate. Living in a time of superstition and belief in magic, she was ahead of her times in my opinion. Armstrong was a gentleman who loved his family and was decent and kind even when there were those who were not kind to him.

This book relies on folklore and the mystery of the missing girl. But this is not the only story/mystery in this book. Setterfield has crafted many stories within her story/novel. Each family is distinct and as the plot unravels, the reader learns that there is more than one mystery in this book. Not only do most characters have backstories as I previously mentioned, there is also the story of Quietly- a character I wasn’t sure was real or a piece of local folklore used to explain life and death on the Thames.

I loved the writing, descriptions, and the way the plot unfolded in the end. With each twist and revelation, came new information, leaving me with several “aha” moments while reading. This book is on the longer side and at times it felt a little long but then, at book’s completion, I understood the reason for its length. Initially, while reading, I thought perhaps this book could use a little editing, but again, once I was finished, I appreciated knowing all the information and it all came together in the end!

Keep in mind that although this book has mystery and some suspense, it is largely character driven. For me this made for a slower yet very satisfying read. This is not a book one should plow through or try to read in one day, take your time and again, no skimming. Even if you think something is unimportant, most likely that will just be the part, that you need to pay attention the most!

Atmospheric, well-written, engaging and interesting. This was like reading a fairy tale for grown-ups. Setterfield has proven yet again that she is a great story-teller!

Thank you to Atria Books and NetGalley who provided me with an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. All the thoughts and opinions expressed in this review are my own.