It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of my sister Brogan’s reviews. Here’s her latest, a review of Cool Water by Dianne Warren.
I was really drawn to Cool Water by Dianne Warren. It wasn’t the cover, it wasn’t the title, it wasn’t even the opening paragraph. What got me was Fred Stenson’s blurb on the back cover: “That two people can share a house and not know they love one another; that a note in a pocket with a woman’s name on it can crack decades of trust—this is a novel about the isolation that we hold secret within ourselves . . . It tiptoes the fine edge between joy and weeping.”
Cool Water is set in a small Western Canadian community, the fictional town of Juliet, Saskatchewan, where a cast of characters set the tone and rhythm of the novel’s unfolding with hardly a hand wave in the direction of plot. Through a series of coincidences, several characters are all insomniac on the same night, as the book opens. The story then traces the next day as the townsfolk live out personal dramas and interact with each other.
The central character is Lee Torgeson, who neatly circumscribes the story by spontaneously stepping out of his habits and obligations, taking off on a lost horse and riding into the night and through the next day, reflecting on life in Juliet and his recent loss of both his adoptive parents. While this wander seems unlikely, it also allows for lengthy musings and the view of an outsider on a place that is his own, but also isn’t.
I tend to read character-driven stories, so Cool Water is right up my alley. I also like multiple viewpoints, criss-crossing subplots, and a little bit of local taste and colour. Because I live in a small town, I understand how life can feel like a play sometimes, as well as a gossip-mill, and I like reading a fictional version done well, where characters’ interior lives are complex and idiosyncratic, and their interactions are sometimes deceivingly superficial and banal. All of these aspects are pluses for Warren’s novel.
The book reminded me of two other books: Sounding Line by Anne DeGrace, and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Sounding Line had the same small-town feel and fixtures: in Sounding Line, it’s a café and the people who run it; in Cool Water, the hardware store and the woman who works at the post office. These are the places around which the towns orient themselves, with all their various characters; these are the reference points that touch everyone, the hubs of activity, the channels of information. Sounding Line is set in a fictional Nova Scotia town and was inspired by the events surrounding a UFO sighting in the real town of Shag Harbour in the sixties. Primarily, though, the book is a character exploration, centred on a boy losing his mother to cancer.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is in this same style, although it’s a grouping of short stories and so doesn’t have the same effort towards a narrative line as the other two. Olive Kitteridge is set in a small town in Maine and follows both the life of Olive Kitteridge, a somewhat curmudgeonly now-retired schoolteacher, as well as the lives of a cast of characters who happen to live in the same town. The interconnected stories all mention Olive at least in passing, but are not necessarily about her in any significant way and don’t necessarily return to the same characters at any other point in the book, other than several about Olive and her husband Henry.
The challenge of such books is to create a world that feels authentic in its ordinariness, but has enough going on in it to make it interesting to read about. The first half to three-quarters of Cool Water succeeds in this venture admirably. The characters and their evolutions are delightfully understated, yet interesting—I think of the woman, mother of six kids, who swears she’ll put up the beans the next day, only to get up and find a pretext to go to town—and it’s so clear she’ll never get back in time to do the beans. I found myself relating to this character so much in this struggle that I truly don’t know if it was more funny or sad.
The problem with Cool Water is that at some point Warren decides to start making an ending for it, and as she ties up each character’s story, she loses something of the finesse of her craft, which was in listening to the characters and letting them drive the story forward. Instead, the changes they undergo towards the end seem sudden or unbelievable, or the denouement is just too self-conscious—which is jarring for a reader who was believing in the characters as people, to suddenly feel like they don’t “smell right”—that the author just needed to finish their stories.
In the end, I think Cool Water was more enjoyable in the reading of it than in thinking about it after the fact—it just doesn’t have that much to stay with you at the end of it, which is unfortunate for a book that initially had such perfectly executed emotional tensions.
Cool Water won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction in 2010.
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Guest posts by the author: A Bookworm’s World • The Book Chick • The Gleeful Reader
Interview with the author: Read, Play, Blog