Florida-based author Charles Martin has continued his run of heart string-tugging stories with his new novel, "Where the River Ends" (Broadway Books, 2008, $19.95).
This, his sixth novel, is the story of Doss and Abbie Michaels. Doss is a mildly successful artist who has laid down his paints in recent years in light of his wife, Abbie's, cancer. Abbie is the only daughter of one of South Carolina's powerful senators and a former model and designer who has put her career and life on hold since her diagnosis.
By the time the reader joins the story, Abbie's breast cancer has metastasized beyond the point of almost any hope and spread throughout her body. Even with her father pulling strings to get her added to lists for experimental treatment at the best hospitals in the country, Abbie's strength is quickly ebbing away. With her time diminishing, Abbie has Doss take her on one last trip to their favorite river to tick off the entries on a list of her final wishes.
The river to which "Where the River Ends" refers is the St. Mary's River running along the borders of Georgia and Florida. It is the river along which Doss endured his impoverished, white-trash childhood, and whose features he learned to paint, providing his only escape and a college scholarship.
Water plays a part in all of Martin's novels, and the river serves as a third character in this story. The St. Mary's 130 winding miles are as varied as the gamut of emotions Doss and Abbie endure on their journey. It is in turn kind and violent to them, floating good Samaritans and vicious rednecks in their path.
As the river twists and turns, so do the merits of this novel. Martin is at his best when he's tapping into Doss' emotions. On his Web site, Martin said his inspiration for the story was an all-too-common real-life side effect of cancer treatment: divorce. Martin heard the account of a woman whose husband served her with divorce papers while she was in the midst of chemo and radiation therapy, disturbing him deeply. In "Where the River Ends," Doss is the guy who sticks it out, living up to his marriage vows.
The story of how Doss and Abbie came together, from such dissimilar backgrounds, is worthy of the Hollywood treatment. Played out through flashbacks interspersed throughout the narrative on the river, their relationship is a classic joining of mismatched pieces. Doss was a starving artist and college student who saved Abbie from an attacker in a park at night. Melodramatic, but you can't help but want to see where it's going.
Also factoring into the story is Abbie's father, the senator. Predictably, this fixture of Charleston society isn't thrilled when his daughter takes up with a kid from a trailer park, regardless of whether he saved Abbie or not. Likewise he's particularly upset when 14 years later, Doss takes his dying daughter on a canoe trip while he'd prefer she endure another round of experimental treatment, and uses his clout to mount an effort to find them.
The weaknesses of "Where the River Ends" shows in the sequences that find Doss and Abbie on the river. Martin writes of the qualities of the river with an attention to detail that is almost obsessively technical. His descriptions of Abbie's cancer are nauseatingly accurate; the focus on the physics of the river seems superfluous in comparison.
It's also a bit too predictable. The trip has danger, as well as peaceful moments. Martin does a good job of introducing an ongoing cat-and-mouse urgency to the trip down the river, but the reader knows the endgame from the outset. But "Where the River Ends" isn't a book you read for the details of the trees and water and the river folk who pop up from time to time. It's all about the universality of the emotions a couple feels when one has one foot in the grave and a dearth of hope. On that count, Martin succeeds.
Signed copies of "Where the River Ends" are available at Lemuria. Call 601-366-7619 for more information.