ON A RAINY APRIL NIGHT in 1917, a passing vagrant sees a young woman fall (or is it jump?) into New York City’s Hudson River. He tries to save her, but fails. The police tentatively identify the woman as Lily Canning, twenty-five years old, from Minuit, a town in the Hudson Valley.
But is it Lily? The question torments her mother, Henrietta, as she awaits confirmation. And when it comes, even more anguishing questions arise, for neither accident nor suicide makes sense. Lily could swim like a fish, and with her looks, and wealth, and talent, with an exhibition of her paintings about to open at a prestigious New York gallery, she had everything to live for.
In the days following her drowning, her heartbroken mother, her estranged husband, Edmund, her family, her friends, even the servant girl, Nuala, try to unravel Lily’s secrets and to come to terms with the devastating consequences of her loss on their own lives.
Set in New York City and the Hudson River Valley, when the country was poised on the brink of the First World War, The River, By Moonlight is a vivid evocation of time and place, and a poignant portrayal of what happens when individual actions and national events collide.
Above all, it is a deeply moving study of grief and despair, of the resilience of human nature, and the triumph of determination and hope.
One phone call and a widow is left distraught. One visit to the hospital and a young woman loses her best friend. One letter and a selfish cousin sees new opportunities. One obituary and a reporter goes straight to New York. One woman dies and the stage is set for "The River, By Moonlight," an extensive and emotional novel by Camille Marchetta.
The story takes place over a few days in 1917, focusing on the drowning of Lily Canning, a young artist and prominent member of the small Hudson River town of Minuit. Her death - possibly an accident, possibly suicide - sets a wave of grief among the town's residents, all wondering how this talented girl could have come to such a tragic end.
Emotionally, the novel connects fiercely with readers as it takes us through Lily's friends and family. Each chapter is set from the mindset of different characters, ranging from Lily's emotionally battered mother Etta to her empathetic best friend Rosaline and estranged ex-husband Edmund. Though written in third-person, there is a definite change of voice between each chapter - in addition to grief we see callousness, artistic distraction and unrequited love.
"The River" works not only as a story of loss, but as historical fiction. Beyond frequent mention of America's entrance into World War I - and the debate of several male characters on enlisting - Marchetta details the era's newspapers, river industry and the advent of Pablo Picasso's modern art. The writing also has a vintage feel to it, with character voices matching their station: old-fashioned precision for the wealthy, calm and conversational for servant and rougher everyday for Edmund's newspaperman background.
Though Lily's chapter takes away some of the momentum, it is quickly restored by the last chapter taking place five years later. Characters have died or moved on with their lives, and Lily becomes an image that they turn to on occasion to simply ask "why?" With this feeling of loss and recovery the book closes, ending on the themes which make "The River, By Moonlight" such a forceful read.
From Kirkus Discoveries:
A personal misfortune set against a backdrop of global crisis.
In 1917, the United States was on the brink of entering World War I, and art was moving away from Impressionism toward a more modern view. Meanwhile, Lily Canning, the daughter of a well-to-do family and an artist on the verge of fame, seems to have everything going for her—good looks, a loving family, wealth and talent. Despite appearances, however, Lily is supremely unhappy, a fact not unnoticed by her friends and family. Nevertheless, when her widowed mother receives a call revealing that Lily has jumped into the Hudson River and died, everyone is shocked. She had seemed happier since she left her husband and was anticipating her first art opening at a New York gallery. Suicide seems unfathomable. As her loved ones speculate about Lily’s last hours, Marchetta slowly reveals the heroine in layers through the narration of those closest to her, such as her best friend, her cousins and her estranged husband. Each character’s memories of Lily are interrupted by daily minutia and woven together with feelings about their own lives, as well as fears about the impending war and the morality of Lily’s last act, mirroring the same realistic style in which Lily painted. Eventually, Lily herself reveals the truth behind her death. There is nothing particularly surprising about the ending and no fancy plot devices. Marchetta’s prose is elegant in its simplicity, its rhythm gently carrying the reader forward like the Hudson River that figures so prominently throughout the story.
An uncomplicated but intriguing read portraying the interconnectedness of people, the effects of grief and depression and the power of hope.
THE RIVER, BY MOONLIGHT