Alice Hoffman is an accomplished writer whose 13 novels — ”Illumination Night,” ”Seventh Heaven,” and ”Practical Magic” among them — have established her reputation as a lyrical storyteller who can spin ornate scenes and settings with a simplicity that never taxes. This time out she attempts to broaden her canvas. The River King feels bigger, more highly populated, and a little more epic than Hoffman’s earlier works. But Hoffman hasn’t really changed her basic approach, and her fans will find much that is familiar.
The novel tells the tale of Massachusetts’ Haddan School, a private academy rising from fields once owned by farmers who cultivated asparagus and onions and a peculiar type of yellow cabbage known for its large size and delicate fragrance. Swans wander the riverbanks, wealthy students scoff at the local townsfolk, and the young men who inhabit Chalk House — the most exclusive dorm — engage in mysterious nighttime forays into the surrounding woods. Hoffman creates an aura around the place that is as thick and glistening as the rosebushes planted by Annie Jordan, a country girl who married the school’s original founder (and nourished her blooms with the pulverized bones of cats). Her fate sets the plot in motion and establishes the atmosphere of romantic tragedy that hangs over Haddan like a dreamy fog.
Hoffman knows how to wrap a heroine in the kind of soft, shimmering details that create myths. And she’s equally expert at writing appealingly crusty ”less than charmers.” (Particularly Dr. Helen Davis, Haddan’s history professor, whose affair with the philandering Dr. George Howe has left her meaner with each passing day.) But Hoffman only skims the surface of some of her other characters: There’s something a little superficial about Betsy Chase and Carlin Leander, the two women at the heart of the romantic triangles that form the basis of ”The River King”’s story.
Hoffman bases the rebellious high-spiritedness of Chase, the school’s photography instructor, on her dark, unpredictable hair, the dime-store flip-flops that announce her every step with a slap, and the fact that as a child, she whined and stomped her feet. Haddan’s star swimmer, scholarship student Leander, has a complexion that turns golden in the light and gives off the scent of jasmine soap. The lightness of these characters is one reason Hoffman’s novel doesn’t jell into a very gripping experience.
Hoffman’s other major narrative engine is also problematic. The suicide — or murder — of Gus Pierce, the school’s Holden Caulfield-like misfit, and subsequent investigation by a set of policemen who don’t seem to feel much urgency, doesn’t do much to stir up the narrative’s warm breeze. Also, the ghosts of other writers and motifs from recent movies hover a little too closely over the book’s landscape. The opening flood is reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s ”Housekeeping” and the epic of insomnia in Gabriel García Márquez’s ”One Hundred Years of Solitude”; the hounding of Pierce by the more conventional students of Chalk House and the academic setting bring to mind ”Lord of the Flies,” ”Dead Poets Society,” and Donna Tartt’s ”The Secret History.” One could credit Hoffman for her skill at drawing on basic romantic types, but she doesn’t reinvigorate them.
Hoffman’s style drains the search for Pierce’s killer of any real suspense, but she does a nice job of weaving together a meandering tapestry of plots, sweeping us through Haddan’s streets and lore. All in all, ”The River King” is a nicely arranged bouquet by a disciplined craftsman deft at getting her occasionally secondhand rose blossoms into the marketplace. Sometimes, however, it’s the freshness that counts.