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Book Review: Pushing the River

Pushing the RiverBarbara Monier. Northfield, IL: Amika Press, August 3, 2018. Trade Paperback and E-book, 249 pages. 

Reviewed by Caryl Barnes.

Pushing the River is Barbara Monier’s well-received third novel. It reflects Monier’s continuing interest in how families, particularly mothers, react to change. The story focuses on Madeline, a woman living alone in a large house, empty since her children left home and a traumatic divorce. For various reasons, six family and non-family members, including Dan, a new lover, move into her house for stays of varying lengths. Living again in a full house delights Madeline but also alarms her. As she says in the opening sentence, “I have lived in the company of ghosts.” Madeline’s ghosts had been well-behaved; even the ghost of her traitorous husband existed in a cozy, head-of-the-household space in her hazy, timeless, dream family.

Ghosts should stay in the past, not burst forth into the present. A mixed-bag of people crowd into Madeline’s nine-room house: her medical school daughter, Kate; her son, John and his dog; her daughter-in-law, Clare; Clare’s fifteen-year-old pregnant sister, Savannah; Clare and Savannah’s mentally ill mother, Billie; and Dan, the new lover. All bring their own histories, emotions, and problems, and Madeline tries to understand each person and care for all. As one Amazon reader put it, the book “illuminates that tricky place so many of us live in, the interactions where our desire to remain rooted in the past collides with the need to move forward into the unforeseeable future.”

The book is well written in a straightforward style, and the characters are complex and interesting both as individuals and through their interactions. Kate hates Dan on sight, Dan can’t stand Madeline paying attention to anyone but him, and Billie and her two daughters erratically buzz around each other. Dan leaves in petty fury, but in the end, the other characters are more closely connected in love than they were at the beginning.

There is one scene in the book that affected me, a non-mother, powerfully. Savannah does not understand how to nurse her newborn son, Dylan, so Madeline shows her. I had been curious about this myself although I assumed it somehow just came naturally. There is much to it, I learned, and enjoyed the bond Madeline created with Savannah and the baby and how she helped Savannah create a bond with her own son.

As I read the book, I puzzled over the meaning of the title. I didn’t see how Madeline or any other character “pushed the river.” I saw the people struggling to keep afloat, not trying to rebel or strike back at fate. At the end of the story, however, I understood: the point of the title is that you can’t push the river! Madeline, sitting contentedly alone with Dylan on Christmas Day while the others have escaped to a movie, murmurs to the baby. “It turns out I can’t really push the river; I can’t make it go in a different direction than it’s going to go. I have no idea what crazy twists and turns your life may take. All I know is that you’re here and that matters. All I have to offer, all I’ve ever had to offer, is love. My messy, flawed, crazy-ass love. I will do the best I can. I will.”


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