Joan Didion's electrifying first novel is a haunting portrait of a marriage whose wrong turns and betrayals are at once absolutely idiosyncratic and a razor-sharp commentary on the history of California. Everett McClellan and his wife, Lily, are the great-grandchildren of pioneers, and what happens to them is a tragic epilogue to the pioneer experience, a story of murder and betrayal that only Didion could tell with such nuance, sympathy, and suspense.
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This powerfully insightful first novel is Joan Didion's finest work. A finely-drawn meditation, it focuses on Lily, a shy and melancholy young matron who yearns for love, but struggles with the challenges of everyday life. Thoughtful but unemotional, Lily and Everett are quintessential Central Valley Californians, strong as the rich soil they till, but unable to confront their personal demons. Leading unexamined lives, they are filled with emotions they cannot express, forever reaching, like their gold-seeking forebears, for the real Eldorado that lies still further on, a mirage just beyond their grasp.
The narrator has a pleasant voice while reading descriptive passages of the book, but her character voices are a disaster. Depressed people are not best represented through high, squeaky, baby voices, like every female character in this audiobook had - Sarah, Martha, Edith, even Lily. The midwestern senator inexplicably had a southern accent. Male voices were unrealistic, exaggeratedly low, without nuance. Lily sings off-key, but the narrator merely recites the lyrics in a stiff monotone, failing the author's purpose of adding authentic layers to the setting and character they were so carefully chosen to reflect. However, while the disappointing narration distracts, it cannot diminish the compelling characters and strong storyline of this fine work.
Thought-provoking, riveting, and memorable, Didion's "Run River" is a quiet masterpiece.