GO AS A RIVER by Shelley Read

Go As A River by Shelley Read is an old-fashioned historical fiction novel about Victoria, a young woman growing up in rural Colorado in the 1940s whose life goes through a dramatic turn of events when she is 16 years old. A stranger in town, a crime of unspeakable violence and an impulsive act all shape Victoria’s life for decades to come, as she grows fiercely independent and protective of her secrets. This lushly written novel is also steeped in nature, with the river flowing through Victoria’s small town and her family’s peach farm playing important roles.

Why I picked it up: Good reviews from readers I trust.

When Go As A River opens, Victoria is living a pretty difficult existence. Her mother and older brother were killed in a car crash years before, and she is the only woman in a house of men. She is expected to wait on her father, brother and disabled uncle, while also serving the boarders at a local flophouse. One day, a young man named Wil appears out of nowhere, and she is immediately taken with him. They enter into a secret relationship, avoiding her volatile brother who does not want to see a young “Injun” boy anywhere near his sister. Victoria and Wil sneak around until Wil disappears, with Victoria suspecting her sinister brother’s involvement. Soon, she disappears too, running away into the mountains and leaving her world behind. Victoria is forced to live alone, relying on the land for nourishment and shelter, until she is driven home out of desperation. She is deeply changed, however, and her life takes off in a different, solitary direction as she learns to live without Wil and the family she once knew.

I liked Go As A River, but I didn’t love it. Like I said, it has an old-fashioned feel to it, with a lot of natural imagery and an uncomplicated but engrossing plot. I grew invested in Victoria’s story and wanted to see it through. I also liked the setting. I took issue with a few things, though. First, I am always a little suspect about “great loves” that happen overnight between teenagers. Victoria and Wil’s star-crossed connection was so sudden that it seemed unrealistic for them for them to sacrifice all they did for each other. Yes, Wil presented an escape from a pretty dark existence, but I still didn’t buy the passion and purity of their relationship. Second, Read does too much telling vs showing. She repeated the same images, the same phrases, over and over, not trusting her reader to figure out the significance of some key plot points or images. Finally, some of the characters were underdeveloped and too black and white, without enough nuance or texture.

I listened to Go As A River on audio. Narration by Cynthia Farrell was pretty good, though her voice is sort of unchanging and stern, with little lightness or humor to it. (Maybe that’s the book, not the voice!) I would have preferred a little more variety in her delivery.

Go As A River was the 23rd book of 2023.