A Separate Peace Shattered
Charles, Ron, The Christian Science Monitor
THE RIVER KING By Alice Hoffman Putnam
324 pp., $23.95
The swans in "The River King" are an ironic motif. Alice Hoffman's latest novel is gorgeous and graceful at first, but it grows into an ugly duckling. This is a surprising disappointment in a book that's frontloaded with clever surprises, magical moments, and gothic details.
The scene opens on the Haddan prep school, one of those old ivy- covered breeding grounds of privilege for the sons and daughters of wealthy New Englanders. In its first year, 1858, the Haddan River swelled past its banks, lifted the new school buildings off their foundations, and left behind silt, mold, and frogs that can't be eradicated to this day.
Hoffman luxuriates in the details of this weedy, dark place. With a macabre sense of humor, she spins the legends and tragedies of the Haddan School history. We learn of the bitter tension between the school and the modest town. We hear the sad story of Annie Howe, the headmaster's pretty young wife who planted the school's gardens, brought in the swans, and then "hanged herself from the rafters one mild evening in March, only hours before the wild iris began to appear in the woods."
Hoffman's prose is simultaneously fantastical and satiric, weaving motifs of fairy tales with biting criticism of this snobby school culture.
Young Carlin Leander and Gus Pierce arrive knowing they won't fit in. Carlin is a poor, defiant girl on a swimming scholarship; Gus is a confirmed misfit. In the socially cruel world of Haddan, they make ready allies. But Carlin can't resist the attention of Harry McKenna, a devastatingly good-looking senior who makes Gus's dorm life a living hell.
The river, always eager to reach out and dissolve the school, finally draws in Gus instead. As usual, the Haddan trustees respond with a large cash gift to the town to silence any embarrassing investigation.
In the wake of recent school tragedies, the novel's dissection of campus stress rings with a painful echo. Hoffman reminds us that private schools are not the sanctuary from woe that some critics of public education would have us believe. The august faculty and administrators of Haddan are experts at ignoring and belittling weak students' pleas for help.
At first, I had high hopes that Hoffman had written a novel capable of freeing poor high school teachers from the annual endurance of John Knowles's "A Separate Peace." Alas, this isn't it.
Perhaps in a story fixated on suicide, it's appropriate that this promising novel takes its own life halfway through. …