Book Review: The River King by Alice Hoffman

The River King by Allice HoffmanRating: 3.5/5
Number of pages: 276
First published: 2000
Genre: contemporary fiction
I got this book: for free at a book fair

Alice Hoffman used to be a favorite writer of mine, ten or so years back. Lately, I have not enjoyed her books quite so much, and this is another one (albeit one from 12 years back) that I had some issues with. I did enjoy the story as such, though.

The River King: What it is about

From “For more than a century, the small town of Haddan, Massachusetts, has been divided, as if by a line drawn down the center of Main Street, separating those born and bred in the village from those who attend the prestigious Haddan School. But one October night the two worlds are thrust together due to an inexplicable death, and the town’s divided history is revealed in all its complexity. The lives of everyone involved are unraveled: from Carlin Leander, the fifteen-year-old girl who is as loyal as she is proud, to Betsy Chase, a woman running from her own destiny; from August Pierce, a boy who unexpectedly finds courage in his darkest hour, to Abel Grey, the police officer who refuses to let unspeakable actions–both past and present–slide by without notice.”

The River King: What I thought

Hoffman is a great story teller but that was just what this book was for me: a story, the whole way through. It never became a reality for me; there was always a distance. The story was interesting enough but no character was described in such a way that I identified with them, at most I felt a little affection for them and a hope that things would end well for them.

Almost throughout the whole book there were descriptions about the school, the town, the people and their habits and histories. The introduction of new information never really ended and I never felt I knew the place and people, so I stayed a distant observer.

The story of what happened to Gus was presented by an all-knowing narrator, towards the ending of the book. Although Abel Grey, the police officer, was researching the case, we didn’t get the story from his point of view, his findings or hypotheses, but an all-knowing narrator just gave the whole story away.

Otherwise, the story was fun to read, I love stories about boarding schools and about people in a small town. There was also an element of magical realism, just enough to make it mysterious, but not enough to make the story (very) unbelievable. Also, it was fun to try and explain Gus’ death, and so was the love story between Abel and Betsy, although that was slow-going.

Extra: I read this book for the RIP VII challengeRIP VII


About Leeswammes
I'm owner and editor at In my free time, I read and review books on my two blogs, Leeswammes' Blog and De Boekblogger.

13 Responses to Book Review: The River King by Alice Hoffman

  1. Judith, I read this book years ago (in 2001 in fact), long before I started my blog but if I remember correctly I felt about the same about the book as you do. I do know that I marked it a 4- at the time.

  2. I love the cover, and I love the title of this book, and the summary of the plot sounds promising. But your review makes me unsure whether to buy it or not. I’ve never read a book by Hoffman before, although I am familiar with her name.

  3. Oh and it sounded so good too!

  4. Stephanie says:

    Excellent review and discussion, Judith. I remember liking this book a lot, though I found it disturbing. But like you, I often have mixed feelings about Hoffman. Her storytelling is mesmerizing, but sometimes I can’t forget I’m being told a story, and I feel distanced from the characters. I felt that, recently, when I read The Story Sisters.

    What are your favorite Hoffman novels?

    • Leeswammes says:

      Stephanie, my latest “batch” of Alice Hoffman novels haven’t been so engrossing, but I loved her books years ago. I think probably *Turtle Moon* was one of my favorites.

  5. heldinne says:

    Oh, I just finished the Story Sisters and enjoyed it tremendously. Loved the River King as well, admire Hoffman for her magic atmosphere and damaged characters.

  6. lynnsbooks says:

    I read this a few years ago and actually really liked it – in fact it’s probably what really set me to reading Hoffman. I also read the Story Sisters and enjoyed that. I agree with your point about the characters feeling remote but to a certain extent I think this is maybe why I like the stories – it gives them an ethereal quality somehow.
    I think the most recent read of AH’s that I’ve picked up was The Dovekeepers. Which I really enjoyed although it had a different feel from her other books and is based on actual events that took place during the Jewish/Roman conflict – it’s described as a ‘tour de force’ which I totally agree with!
    Lynn 😀

    • Leeswammes says:

      Lynn, thanks for yout comment. I haven’t read The Dovekeepers. What’s holding me back is the historical aspect – it’s too far away in time. I’m not sure I’d like that. It does sound different from her other books. Maybe she’s going in a new direction?

      • lynnsbooks says:

        The Dovekeepers is certainly different from her other books. It probably wouldn’t be for everyone although I enjoyed it but I do like a good historical read. I wouldn’t say that it has the same magical quality that so much of her other work contains.
        Lynn 😀

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