Joan Didion's electrifying first novel is a haunting portrait of a marriage whose wrong turns and betrayals are at once absolutely idiosyncratic and a razor-sharp commentary on the history of California. Everett McClellan and his wife, Lily, are the great-grandchildren of pioneers, and what happens to them is a tragic epilogue to the pioneer experience, a story of murder and betrayal that only Didion could tell with such nuance, sympathy, and suspense.
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“All the days of their lives”
The scene when Lily McClellan reflects on her relationship with Everett - and, in the process, sounds like a character from William Faulkner.
No - I greatly enjoyed this performance, though.
Lily's comments (in chapter 23) that ends with the phrase "all the days of their lives".
This is not the California of later books by Joan Didion but a novel about Sacramento, and less Sacramento than the area down towards the delta of the Sacramento River, a flat land with a full but sluggish river, between levees, with a feeling of being out on the edge but marooned, rather than excited or exhilarated. And when the city appears it is less as the capital of the State than as a Valley town, provincial and almost gossipy. "Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento", Didion has said – and I did, years ago, though the 100F+ summers are just as stultifying. I even spent a hot afternoon driving down the levee road to the rural Chinatown of Locke, which one drives into almost by accident by veering off to the land-side of the river. And barely is one on Locke’s Main Street, than one is out again and up on the levee road. In the “Run, River”, in 1959, a southbound highway fails to get built but it wouldn’t be long before Sacramento and most other cities were connected to each other through the interstate highway network. To this extent it is an end of an era (and a marriage) novel.
There is also strong dynastic quality to the story of the McClellans and, to some extent of the Knights, and, to this extent and also in the provincial setting and the ill-fated quality of their story, it is reminiscent of William Faulkner. It is also not surprising that there is a brief, but telling, exchange between characters about Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard”. The dynastic character of “Run, River” probably needs more words than in this shortish novel to encompass place and time historically or it needs a different storytelling technique, akin to Faulkner’s. There is something of this quality in the long flashback, going back to 1938 and that starts with a murder in 1959, but, with only a few exceptions (most memorably in chapter 23), the individual sentences lack that sense of the past being ever-present which is to be found in Faulkner’s most dynastic novel, “Absalom, Absalom!” However, in its own terms, “River, Run” is compelling and even moving, in a weary, distanced way, particularly in the only occasional ability of Lily and Everett McClellan to say what they truly feel for each other, and their situation, which they have felt “condemned to play … out together all the days of their lives.”