Author: Carol Goodman

Publisher: Simon & Schuster,

ISBN: 9781501109904

ISBN: 9781501109928 (Touchstone Digital)


FIRST DISCLOSURE: I am an academic wife, thus my reaction to the first few pages of this novel was a groan: I recognized the jabs at English professors who live by fear and envy, the system of using adjuncts, and the troubles and treachery of students. The tradition of using isolated college campus settings for modern mysteries and turning ivory tower eccentrics into crazy murderers goes back some decades, to a time when not everyone needed a college degree and intellectuals were pampered aliens. Recent developments reflected in this contemporary version are that the attainment of tenure is now elusive, and that college students are from a broader spectrum of society, which means they are not so isolated or innocent.

SECOND DISCLOSURE: I am a graduate of creative writing programs and have been a writing teacher. The aforementioned fear and envy are intensified under these circumstances; sensitive and suicidal authors are not exactly common, but familiar. Just as familiar is the phenomenon of students wanting to write about their personal experiences, which in my opinion is not always a good idea, but crucial to the plotting of RIVER ROAD.

THIRD DISCLOSURE: I am a mystery/crime novel junkie. This story centered on the theme of hit-and-run is one of those that shines the headlights of suspicion on every character in turn. This heightens anxiety. It produces paranoia in the narrator, Nan Lewis, a writing instructor who has just been denied tenure shortly after she has lost her child by her own neglect and whose husband has left her. In her grieving, she has distanced herself from colleagues, students and family. No one seems to believe in her. She has been turning to alcohol increasingly. So when she hits a deer driving home from a party, and is suspected of killing a student, where does she turn? Whom can she trust? Can she even trust herself?

The setting is appropriately ominous: Icy cold has descended upon Upstate New York and the campus, which is almost deserted during the Winter break. It is on a piece of the surrounding estate that was abandoned, haunted by tragedy. Nan lives in a nearby farmhouse. The snow is deep, restricting her movement. Her ability to write is frozen. She can see where her daughter died from her study window. Dwelling on her losses, this protagonist’s mind is darkened by her knowledge of local folklore and Greek mythology. Her realization that the hit-and-run murder of a rising star in her class may be related to the involvement of students in drugs brings her back to the reality and needs of the present -- and to geography. The killer curve on River Road, a major local route and link to Poughkeepsie, is a short walk from her front door. In the other direction there is an abandoned boat house used for trysts. It sits on a river next to an Amtrak railroad line, all within walking distance from her front porch.

While occasionally the veteran author lapses into mere pop genre fiction, notably, our troubled heroine’s rather sudden sexual abandonment to the romantic cop, and her hardly believable physical endurance during brutal attacks, I accept her foolish bravery as a kind of temporary madness. On the other hand, the several allusions to Greek myths seems to me a little “in-your-face,” like sticky notes left by one of her beta-readers. Still, RIVER ROAD exceeds my standards for chilling suspense. The lasting value in this work is the author’s intelligent examination of the process and purpose of writing and storytelling (not necessarily the same thing), and her mature exploration of morality and integrity. The thoughtful discussion questions at the end of the book provide a bonus.