Review: Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

Title: Once Upon a River
Author: Diane Setterfield
Pages: 464
Genre: Literary Fiction
Source: Free ARC from Atria

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ 

Note: As stated under the Source (above), I received this book for free from Atria via NetGalley. I pride myself on writing fair and honest reviews.

Goodreads Summary: “A dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames. The regulars are entertaining themselves by telling stories when the door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child.

Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.

Is it a miracle?

Is it magic?

Or can it be explained by science?

Replete with folklore, suspense and romance, as well as with the urgent scientific curiosity of the Darwinian age, Once Upon a River is as richly atmospheric as Setterfield’s bestseller The Thirteenth Tale.

Review: Where to begin, where to begin…How about the writing? Diane Setterfield is a magnificent writer. Most writers are good at some things, and less good at others, but Setterfield is a master of all. Her characters are fully rendered,  the mood properly set, and her descriptions are poetic and immersive. Much like F. Scott Fitzgerald, her sentences can take your breath away. Unlike Fitzgerald, she also writes a wonderful story (sorry, not sorry)!

After my love affair with The Thirteenth Tale, I was thrilled to hear she was coming out with something new. That said, if you are expecting a story like The Thirteenth Tale, you will be disappointed. Not because this book is disappointing, but because Once Upon a River is wholly different. The pace is slower, the mystery more drawn out, and the overall focus is really on the characters and their relationships, in light of the astonishing events that take place. Everyone in the village is affected differently, and as the mystery unravels, they (and we) learn a great deal about their wants and desires, and every single person involved in the events of that night finds their life quite changed when all is said and done. Overall, it is a wonderful treat!

One thought I’d like to share: I’m sure you noticed that I only gave a 4 star rating, despite having enjoyed quite a bit (I hope that’s evident!). I strongly suspect that I didn’t get the 5-star feeling because I was reading several books at once. Most of the time, this is fine. It’s how I read more often than not. But. Some books require (deserve!) full focus. This is one of those books. Had I read it alone, giving it a few long sittings rather than a lot of shorter ones, I feel sure I would have lost myself in the story more fully. At some point, I hope to reread it with that approach, to test my theory. For now, I leave it a 4 stars. But I digress…

If you are the kind of reader who can appreciate a gorgeous sentence, this book is for you! If you are the kind of reader who loves a good story, also for you! However, if you don’t appreciate somewhat longish books with lots of stunning and flowery words and very little action, not so much for you. Love literary fiction? Definitely, definitely for you!

17 Replies to “Review: Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield”

  1. I love your review! I do have this one added to my list. It sounds like the writing is wonderful. Atleast that’s what most have been saying regardless of how they feel about the book as a whole. Looking forward to it! 💗

    • Thank you! I’m a sucker for a beautifully written book, and if done well, there is no such thing as overly descriptive. This is definitely a book I’ll recommend again and again. I hope you love it!

  2. Great review! I have the same theory where some books I think need to be read in long sittings rather than short. I have had books where I felt like I would have liked it more if I could have devoted more time to it. But a lot of time life doesn’t allow that (at least for me!) 🙂

    • Time is such a bugger, isn’t it? And also, you never really know in advance what books are going to be “those” books, so if you’re in the habit of reading many books at once, and you already have another book going…

  3. A very good honest review. I try not to let my own circumstances when I am reading a book affect my review, but that can be a difficult task. Analyzing what happened with this book is a good tactic and probably wise considering the positive things you have to say about the book. On the other hand, there are books where the total is not the sum of the parts. Perhaps this is the case here.

    • Thank you. Ultimately, I have good feelings about this book and the overall reading experience, and the author remains on a lofty pedestal. I’ll read more by her and continue to gush about her. 🙂

  4. Wonderful review Myndi. I agree that she has a gorgeous writing style and that this is a book that I would want to sit and read and get swept away in. It also sounds like it is a very character driven novel, which I have to be in the mood for. I have this on hold at the library so hope to have that time to enjoy it when I get home in March.

Leave a Reply to carhicks Cancel reply