book Sabbathday River

reviewed by Dea Reeves

Published in Issue No. 24 ~ May, 1999

This is an Important Novel. We know this for several reasons. First, there is the book’s portentous title (the author provides a rather bizarre and unconvincing explanation of the origins of the river’s name). There are the endless discussions of Big Issues, such as feminism, the oppression of women, and the double standard; the iniquities of the American justice system; the Holocaust and the Jews’ relationship to God; and the death of 1960s idealism. Not to mention the book’s tree-anihilating length; and Scott Turow’s assessment – “The Sabbathday River is wonderful – wonderfully written, wonderfully plotted, wonderfully compelling … ”

Nevertheless, this novel – part
Scarlet Letter
, part Perry Mason meets Portia, and part “The Susan Smith Story” – is less than the sum of its parts. It is neither especially well-written nor especially well-plotted. Its characters are confused and confusing. And the crimes involved – the infanticide of two newborn infants – are not made to seem particularly vile, despite their ostensibly heinous nature.

The novel’s action begins when Naomi Roth finds a dead infant in the Sabbathday River. The newborn clearly died from an act of murder: its heart was pierced by a long, thin object such as a needle, leaving “one dainty drop of precious blood” such as seen in medieval paintings of the crucified Jesus – a metaphor which, though erudite, seems hardly likely; wouldn’t a body immersed in a river be clean of all traces of blood? At first, Naomi tries to convince herself that the body is a lost doll, presumably to make the discovery that it is in reality the corpse of a murdered baby more shocking; however, this strange denial only serves to make Naomi seem obtuse.

The immediate suspect in the Sabbathday River infanticide is Heather Pratt (surely no heavy-handed similarity to Hester Prynne’s name intended here). Heather has already borne a daughter (Polly/Pearl) out of wedlock, and even though the novel is set in 1985, as a result Hester … er, Heather, is shunned by her small, narrow-minded, bigoted New Hampshire community (Goddard and Goddard Falls). She even loses her job as clerk/typist at the local Athletic Center. Polly’s father, local Lothario Ashley Deacon (yet another allusion to The Scarlet Letter; Heather’s seducer might not be a clergyman but he bears a religious last name), goes largely uncensured, even though he is a married man whose wife has produced a son only days before the birth of Heather’s daughter Polly.

Local townfolk begin to point fingers: Heather has been deserted by Ashley; Heather was pregnant a second time; where is her baby? Soon Heather is arrested, questioned, and put through incredibly illegal but also incredibly inexplicable maneuvers by the county’s district attorney. Before you can say Roger Chillingsworth, Heather has confessed not merely to one act of infanticide, but to two. And even after it is shown (by blood-typing; Korelitz has sneakily set her story before the advent of DNA testing) that Heather and Ashley could not possibly be the parents of both dead babies, the district attorney comes up with a theory so ludicrous that it’s laughable and proceeds to prosecute Heather for the murders of the two infants.

But, before you can say “The Case of the Terrified Typist,” or “The Case of the Negligent Nymph,” Naomi – apparently Heather’s sole friend – meets up with another transplanted New Yorker, Judith Friedman. Judith just happens to have moved to the Goddard area recently, and also just happens to be a lawyer working for the county’s Public Defender’s office. Judith’s husband Joel just happens to be a geneticist (which fact will later become very important to the story’s plotline). Although she is a new member of the PD’s office and an unlikely candidate to be assigned such a high-profile case, Judith somehow ends up defending Heather, even though she expresses an obvious antipathy for her client.

In fact, Heather – the central figure during the short investigation and overly long trial portions of the novel – is neither likable nor credible as a character. The reader is asked to believe that Heather, smart enough to earn a scholarship to Dartmouth (“You know how long it’s been since Goddard Falls produced somebody capable of getting into an Ivy League school?” one character asks Heather early in the novel), is stupid enough to fall for the district attorney’s tricks. She is also so emotionally inept that she believes Ashley loves her, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. At her trial, the only time she shows any emotion is when Ashley tells the judge and jury, coldly and cruelly, about his lack of feeling for Heather.

In the middle of her trial, Heather suddenly and inexplicably becomes a cause celebre. Women across the country begin sending Heather a single white rose. As Korelitz later explains, the white roses symbolize the short-lived anti-Nazi White Rose group led by Sophie Scholl and her brother. But why choose a noble, ill-fated, decades-old resistance movement to show support for feminism and for the patently apolitical Heather? Why compare the supremely self-centered Heather with the self-sacrificing Scholl siblings, who were publicly beheaded by Hitler’s “justice” system? What ever happened to yellow ribbons? Or, for that matter, scarlet letter A’s?

Naomi, who sets the novel’s events in motion and is the other main point-of-view character, is not much more likable than Heather. Naomi is a transplanted New Yorker (according to Korelitz, New Yorker is code for Jewish) who with her ex-husband came to New Hampshire as a VISTA worker. Despite her feelings of alienation, Naomi has stayed on to found a local cooperative that markets such moribund crafts as quilting and embroidery (the near-death of which should come as a surprise to recipients of the Keepsake Quilting and Stichery catalogs, to name but two of a number of similar publications).

Surprisingly successful, the cooperative provides income and status to Goddard’s downtrodden wives and mothers, depicted as if they belong in Appalachia rather than New England. Naomi’s husband Daniel, an unreformed hippie, finds Naomi’s entrepreneurial success distasteful, and leaves her to live with the ex-girlfriend of a former terrorist. Though introspective to a fault, Naomi’s insights seem banal (” . . . it seemed like the [dead] baby might be like that, for her – a buried thing surfacing, a bottle with a message for Naomi alone. And when she deciphered the message, she would know what her life was to be about. She had stayed behind for this, in other words.”). Naomi also seems remarkably obtuse. Supposedly Heather’s only friend, and the only person who saw Heather regularly, she misses the signs of Heather’s second pregnancy and parturition.

Besides suffering from the lack of appealing characters, The Sabbathday River also is unevenly written. Korelitz’s writing varies from pedestrian (“Pick turned back to the stove. ‘You might go into town. We could use milk. And you’ve got a ride, anyway’) to pretentious (“The arc of her day, from guilty exercise dilettante to bearer of death, from murder suspect to, at the very least, unintentional obstructor of justice, wore itself in the indigo smudges beneath her widely spaced eyes . . .”) to inept (“The men on the jury reacted, Naomi saw, but the women were mostly nonplussed.”) Does Korelitz really believe that being nonplussed is not a reaction? Also, the author’s use of dialog tags can be annoying; nearly every major character in the book speaks “archly” at one point or another.

Ultimately, however, the novel’s main failure is in its plotting. Coincidences play an overly large part in The Sabbathday River‘s plot. At times, the coincidences seem overwhelming and unbelievable. Heather and Ashley’s wife being pregnant at the same time. Two very likely unrelated infants murdered almost simultaneously. Heather’s grandmother, her only relative and source of support, dying the same night Ashley breaks off his affair with Heather. And, worst of all, Korelitz gives enough information away during the first third of her book to make the outcome obvious and render the rest of the novel superfluous: Judith has a young nephew who is dying slowly of an incurable disease. Judith and her husband come from the Eastern European Jewish gene pool, with its attendant genetic afflictions. Judith’s husband is a geneticist . . .

There is an accepted tenet among reviewers of crime novels that a review should never give away the solution to a book’s mystery. To violate that tenet is cause for shame and shunning. Such a reviewer will be reviled by authors, publishers, bookstores, etc.; however, there is also a fairly strong bias against authors who telegraph the ending less than halfway through their novel.

But wait! The Sabbathday River is an Important Novel, not a mystery. Why should it be held to standards set by authors and readers of lesser genres? Well, possibly because, despite the Big Issues, the angst, the portentous metaphors, the author’s note at the end of the book, followed by a quote from Michael Longley’s “Terezin,” this really IS a mystery novel in sheepish mainstream garb.

As Raymond Chandler once said of Dashiell Hammett, father of the hard-boiled detective story, Hammett “gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” Maybe it’s now time to give mystery novels back to those who write them for a reason: to mystify, not just to provide sensationalism and a backdrop for pontificating.