Time Is a River

Mary Alice Monroe
2008, Women's Fiction
Pocket, $25.00, 384 pages, Amazon ASIN 1416544364

Grade: B+
Sensuality: Subtle

When an author who's previously written some great books has a new release, I begin it feeling not only a strong sense of giddy-"oh, boy!"-ness, but also with a sense of trepidation. What if, this time around, the author fails me? That sense was pretty strong when I read the cover jacket for Mary Alice Monroe's Time Is a River; it seemed impossible that a woman's fiction novel with a fly fishing theme was going to do it for me. Thankfully, I was wrong. Monroe has once more dazzled me with her poetic prose, but this time she also cut me to the bone with a heroine recovering from breast cancer who discovers her husband in bed with a beautifully breasted woman - just as she's returning home to excitedly share with him her joyful experience of learning to fly fish in the company of other cancer survivors.

Mia Landan knows her marriage is over at that moment. She grabs her husband's expensive golf clubs, throws them into the trunk of her car, and drives from her Charleston home to the foothills of Ashville, North Carolina, where Belle Carson lives - and runs - Casting for Recovery. Belle offers her refuge at an isolated cabin she inherited and while the prospect is a daunting one, Mia decides to stay in the beaten up old fishing cabin while she regroups.

The cabin was owned by Kate Watkins, Belle's grandmother, a famous fly fisherwoman and journalist from the 1920s, who was said to have murdered her lover after the Crash of '29 when he lost his fortune...and hers. Kate's daughter had run away from her mother as a teenager, with nothing but bitter words to say about Kate, so Belle is not interested in learning about her famous/infamous grandmother, and specifically asks Mia not to poke around into the family history. But Kate somehow remains present in the cabin - her journals and watercolors call to Mia, and help her work through her fears about the cancer recurring, and soon enough she's getting together with the newspaper editor, town librarian, and meeting with a couple of the town's most elderly citizens to discover the truth surrounding Kate's infamous past.

But this is not a mystery novel. Her delving into the past happens at a leisurely pace, and it is what makes Mia part of the local community, where she discovers the first real friends of her life. And while fly fishing on cabin property, she meets Stuart MacDougal, an accomplished fisherman setting up an Orvis outpost at an estate once owned by Kate's father.

Mia begins to paint again, and as she fishes, both alone and with Stuart, she grows into herself, setting aside the old Mia who judged herself almost entirely by appearances. Her growing relationship with the ruggedly handsome fisherman is critical for the story's progression, but as with all women's fiction, it's not the major component, which instead, is her discovery of major Truths About Life through Kate's eloquent writings and her own experiences on the water. I don't mean that in a mocking way; you'll have to read the book to see what I mean.

Although Mia knows she will only be staying at the cabin for a summer, she gains enormous satisfaction restoring it to its previous glory. The housekeeping she indulges in reads as a metaphor for the internal transformation she undergoes throughout as she becomes confident in her ability to survive, and indeed, thrive, under harsh conditions. And it goes without saying that her husband's putter - or was it his 9-iron? - make a terrific hammer. As for her husband, after the book's explosive start, the conflict between Mia and her philandering mate is too muted. The cabin is so isolated that her contact with him is limited to cell phone use or the Internet when she goes into town. But failure to honor her promise to Belle (by keeping her grandmother's story under the radar), creates more vibrant conflict. Like Kate before her, Belle is a formidable woman. And when Monroe writes about breast cancer and the physical and emotional toll taken both by the disease and the treatment, it hits very close to home.

One of my favorite brothers-in-law does a fair amount of fly fishing, and while I'm not about to go out in hip waders or tie flies with him, the quiet and contemplative nature of Time Is a River is incredibly alluring. Just be sure to keep the Kleenex handy.

-- Laurie Likes Books

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2007 interview with Mary Alice Monroe
2002 Q&A with Mary Alice Monroe/Mary Alice Kruesi
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