Spencer will likely always be remembered for this 1979 classic, Endless Love. And that’s a shame because good as that book was, Spencer followed that early success with one terrific book after another. Two of his more recent novels remain among my favorites—A Ship Made of Paper and Man in the Woods. To that I happily add this new book.
While the plots of his books are wide-ranging, there is a through-line to his themes. It seems to me that all his books are concerned with how one’s reaction in a moment of strong emotion can tear apart what proves to be the relatively thin scrim of civilization.
Told from alternating points of view over many years, River Under the Road is the story of a marriage—two marriages really–against the backdrop of declining opportunities for the working class and the lottery-like luck that leads a small number of Americans to live lives of luxury while telling themselves they have earned that outsized luck.
The story plays out poignantly on the small canvas of a handful of people’s lives from their early choices to their dawning awareness of their compromises, betrayals and failures. And in a subtle but ultimately devastating way, we see how they stand in for America’s choices over the last fifty years.
What Janet Maslin said of A Ship Made of Paper in the NYT is true for this book, too:
Richly intelligent prose and vivid characters, set against the backdrop of American race relations [in this case substitute “class”]. Here are real people confronting real emotions, whether it’s the electric thrill of illicit love, seething anger over a betrayal or the white-knuckle terror of genuine mortal danger… [the] slowly escalating catastrophe that wrecks buildings and lives – will rattle your bones.”
The best book titles offer and “ah ha” moment and a clue about the writer’s intent. The title for this book comes when two screenwriters are talking at a Hollywood party: “’You want to know what I know, chum?… Eagles can tell how much food is going to be available in their habitat over the next six months and if they see it’s going to be slim pickings they break a couple of their own eggs so there won’t be too many mouths to feed. We’re connected to our environment, too. We’re aware of what’s going on with our species, with our whole world, we can feel it like you can feel a river under a road.’”
Coverage starts with New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post where it was already included as one of most anticipated book of the spring.
“Rich, provocative . . . . Since Endless Love (1979) . . . Spencer’s specialty has been the ache of unrequited (or lost) love. His prose on the subject of romance is fulsome, lush, downright Lawrencian. He has a supple understanding of infidelity and marital dynamics, especially the simmering resentments of a floundering relationship. . . . River Under the Road is wry and insightful.”
— Washington Post
“The story of two couples, recounted across 14 years through the lens of a dozen parties…. At the center of the action are Thaddeus, a screenwriter, and his wife, Grace, an artist who drifts away from her art as the pair moves from bohemia into the bourgeoisie…. Money is an issue throughout the novel—who has it and who doesn’t, what one must do to get it, what happens when it goes away. More to the point, however, this is a book about the vicissitudes of love…”
— Kirkus Reviews
River Under the Road (9780062660053) by Scott Spencer. $27.99 hardcover. 6/27/17 on sale.