Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Review: Eternal on the Water by Joseph Monninger

Jonathan Cobb is taking a sabbatical year from the private boys school where he teaches, kayaking the Allagash River and following in some of the footsteps of Thoreau when he first sees Mary Fury, a biologist, corvid expert (that's crows and ravens to those of us not scientifically inclined), and university professor. Neither one of them expected to find the love of their life at the ranger station before putting into the river but they have an immediate connection and seem somehow to recognize each other. Mary is on the river to connect with the Chungamunga girls, young girls who go down the river together, learning and growing and taking a break from the potential or certain medical horrors in their futures.

As Cobb and Mary fall deeper and deeper in love during their trip down the Allagash that summer, they share their deepest souls with each other and Mary confides that she herself is a Chungamunga girl, "eternal on this water." Far from scaring Cobb away, the idea that she could eventually develop Huntington's Disease serves to make Cobb fold her into himself that much closer and when they finish their river run, their connection together takes them to Indonesia and Yellowstone and home to New Hampshire until they face their final reckoning.

The book starts out with the ending first so readers already know that they will require many tissues as they read this beautifully rendered novel of love and nature and the devastation of disease. The prose here is gorgeous and Monninger has skillfully interwoven the natural world with that of man. Mary's crow stories, grounded in myth and in science, are captivating. Cobb's fierce desire to be a caretaker to Mary and to a student who so clearly needs him is strong and yet gentle. The characters are both good souls but Monninger manages to give them enough goofy, loveable foibles that they don't come across as cookie cutter or false. The concept of the Chungamunga girls is fantastic and almost makes the reader wish to be one too for the romance and the experience and lifelong comraderie save of course, the uncertain and often limited diagnosis each of the girls face once they come off the river.

The love story between Cobb and Mary unfolds naturally and never feels manipulative, despite being so immediate. Instead the reader feels privileged to witness such a powerful, encompassing love, one that extends beyond Cobb and Mary and willingly includes and enfolds each of the people who have touched their lives in some way. The presence of the Chungamunga girls and the sleeping giant of Mary's potential Huntington's disease (her father died of it) offer up commentary on mortality and the ways in which human beings view death, the ways in which we can allow illness to dictate lives, or how we choose to not give disease, any disease large or small, that kind of hold over us. This is an incredibly powerful, moving, and simply gorgeous book. Brimming with a tender, compassionate love story and the grandeur of nature, this is one not to miss.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.


  1. I've read several good reviews about this one. I don't usually choose books that I know will make me cry, but this one is tempting me.

  2. Beautiful review!! I'm definitely adding this to my list!

  3. Sounds amazing... I really want to read this, it's on my wishlist already but your beautiful review made me want it more!

  4. great review! I loved this one too - much more than I ever expected!

  5. This is a lovely review. This sounds like a novel that really stirs your emotions. :-)

  6. Lovely review, I loved this book too, found it both uplifting and sad and even though I cried buckets at the ending I think it will remain a favourite read for 2010.


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