Tuesday, February 23, 2010

F is for...

The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan (Response to Historical Tapestry's Alphabet Challenge)

This book winked at me a few times from the bookstore shelves before I finally decided to pick it up on sale. The concept appealed to me--a historical novel set against the backdrop of a natural monument and real historical events. And a few browses through a few random paragraphs (page 99 test, anyone?) showed me that I enjoyed Buchanan's writing style.

After finishing the book, I can say--quite a writing style. Buchanan writes beautifully, recognizes the power of poetry to create imagery through words. The plot is a quiet one (more on my reaction to this later) so that often what propels the reader forward is not a sense of "what happens next" but rather "what will she say next." It's a lovely blend of literary and historical in terms of the writing quality.

My one quibble with the style is that Buchanan writes by turns in present and past tense. Though I am sure she did so quite deliberately, for the life of me I can find no pattern nor reason for what is in present and what is in past. I tend to enjoy when writers play with rules a bit, but this didn't jibe for me. Unlike, for instance, The Piano Teacher, in which some sections (entire chapters) are in past, others present, to dilineate the perspective and storyline timeframe, Falls dips in and out--and I'm afraid I found it irritating.

Not, however, such a big deal that I would put down the book. It's an enjoyable, though, as I mentioned, slow-paced read. The essential storyline is simple--a romance entwined with the mighty falls, interupted by WWI, culminating with an alliance that threatens to destroy what the main characters love about each other and the falls. To be honest, I'm making it sound grander than it's written--it's written quietly. On one hand, this made me happy--I like quiet stories and I like that one was published in today's market that seems so often to demand quick hook and fast pace. On the other hand, there were elements to the plot that seemed to drag a bit. I would have liked the agony of the main character waiting for her husband's return from the front drawn out a bit more, for her parents' disapproval of their marriage to be more sharply defined. These seemed like they should have been major plot points, but were glossed over, in my opinion, too quickly. Not only would heightening many of these conflicts bring more interest to the book, I felt they would make it more realistic. Do not be surprised as well when you are not surprised. The plot is fairly predictable. The lovely writing and seeing how the characters would react to the plot points I guessed were coming kept me reading.

Another element that I found of interest was the underlying current (current? river? get it? sorry) of struggle between the encroaching hydroelectric plant and the natural, unspoiled beauty of the falls and river. This is why I chose this book for "F"--the falls are more than part of the title and the setting, they are an integral part of the book. Buchanan did a lovely job making this conflict a part of the larger plotline, but was less effective, in my opinion, at peppering the book with newspaper articles and photographs that were supposed to evoke an archival quality.
So, a bit of a mixed review, I know--if you like poetic writing and are intrigued by the concept, worth a read.


Marg said...

This book seems to get pretty good reviews everywhere. One day I hope to read it myself.

Miss Moppet said...

Curtis Sittenfeld did the past/present tense thing in American Wife. It made sense to me at first, because it started off in the present day with Laura Blackwell thinking in the present tense, then she told her story in past tense, then back to the present tense again...and then the book was finished off in the past tense for no apparent reason. It distracted me slightly from the story!

Kathleen Wall said...

It sounds like an interesting read... I find the cover captivating enough to want to pick it up. I think the switch in tense for no clear reason would make me batty, though. I agree: it's ok to experiment with conventions, but there better be a good reason for it. As a writer, you don't want your experimenting to remind your reader that they are reading. You want them lost in whatever world you've created. At least I do!

Rowenna said...

Moppet and Kathleen--it's a bit unfair of me, I know, but though I appreciate when authors experiment, I guess I do judge them a bit harshly when, in my mind, it doesn't work.

I hope you enjoy Falls, Marg! It's a pretty quick read, and, as I said, the writing is quite lovely in spots.

Carrie C said...

Thanks for what sounds like a very fair review. I'll keep an eye out for it!