Review: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

In college books were my sanctuary. Specifically books about books spoke to me. When I was lost and unsure of where my life was headed I could turn to stories and escape, and when those stories were about how other people used similar escapist methods I felt at home. 

So I loved Diane Setterfield’s Thirteenth Tale. I adored it. All these years later some of the details are fuzzy but the book still ranks high on my favorites list. 

Of course this meant last year when Setterfield put out Once Upon a River I was ecstatic, and then promptly got distracted by life to read it. Now it is a new year. I am in a new book club, and our first read is….you guessed it! Once Upon a River.

Once Upon a River is a love letter of sorts. It is a letter to the love of stories, and to a lesser degree the myths and fairytales that stay in our hearts long after we hear them. With a large and diverse cast of characters all connected by one mysterious child Setterfield excels at world building. The Thames is a central character here, and the river is always present. 

I will say that while the prose was beautiful and 90% of the characters intriguing Once Upon a River for me was a bit of a dud. I didn’t sign up for a mystery, and the core question of “who is the girl?” that plagues the entire 400+ pages was not my favorite thing. Mostly the mystery girl felt like an unneeded element to tell a story of already connected characters. I will say that the historic elements, the photography, the medicine, and the social conventions were incredibly  interesting. I truly did care about all of the characters. I just didn’t think the central mystery was anything to write home about. 

Though as I prepare for my book club meeting I am getting many messages of joy at the experience that is Once Upon a River. Maybe I’m just a callous reader now, or maybe this wasn’t the right time for me to take this journey down the Thames.

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