Ethan Canin, Blue River (1991)

For the first time since I’ve discovered Ethan Canin, I find myself a bit disappointed at the end of one of his books. Blue River was somehow less satisfying than his short stories collection, The Palace Thief and The Emperor of the Air, or even his 2001 novel, Carry me across the water.

Blue River is about the relationship between two brothers growing up in an impoverished, rather dysfunctional family (the father has left years ago and the mother takes solace in the Bible rather than addressing her children) in a small town in Wisconsin, near the Mississippi river. The narrator is the younger brother Edward, rather shy and conventional, and he addresses his older brother, Lawrence, a domineering, troubled and mysterious young man with a bad hand from birth. Lawrence can be cruel and endearing in the same breath. As a teenager he becomes violent and steals stuff, but he later turns into a model citizen, and eventually disappears altogether.

The novel starts 15 years later, as Edward has become a successful ophthalmologist in California. His brother shows up, apparently in trouble, but the younger one is torn with guilt and wariness. He turns Lawrence down and asks him to leave. The event triggers the memory of their childhood together, and how Lawrence eventually went away.

There’s a lot of good things in the book (which Verbivore enjoyed enormously), but to me, the structure is flawed. It delays a lot the action. I don’t care so much about the adult Lawrence and Edward. One is a bum, the other a wealthy man – things appear too black-and-white. I started being hooked around page 120 on a total of 250. Yes, I think I was very patient for the sake of Mr. Canin, and other people, especially if they have never read anything else from him, might have felt discouraged well before that turning point.

Interestingly, it seems that this book stems out of one of the stories of The Emperor of the Air, American Beauty, but it was probably my least favourite story in the collection. So I have mixed feelings about it, probably because I can’t really relate to this particular brotherhood stuff and also the small-town-in-middle-of-nowhere atmosphere.

[Spoiler Beware!] The most annoying thing in my point of view is that I guess Canin wants us to question who was the good brother and the bad one, like Cain and Abel. But to me, Lawrence has no redeeming quality, and is something of a sociopath, so I don’t feel the extent of Edward’s guilt for awkwardly denouncing him (while letting him escape). But I’m sure that it would make a fine discussion for a book club. If you have read Blue River, what do you think?

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One thought on “Ethan Canin, Blue River (1991)

  1. I hadn’t thought of the Cain and Abel parallel, that does add a dimension to the discussion. I wonder if one of the reasons I liked Blue River so much was actually because I haven’t read Canin’s other work yet….I remember I admired the writing and that held me to the book. I have Palace Thief on the shelf and waiting for me.

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