Joan Didion was born and raised in Sacramento, a place that provides the setting for her debut novel Run River published in 1963.
The novel opens in the blistering heat of the summer of 1959. Shortly after midnight, Lily McClellan hears a gunshot outside her home, the ranch she shares with her husband, Everett, and two teenage children. At first she remains untroubled as if there was a sense of inevitability about the shooting. When she searches for her husband’s gun in the drawer of the bedside table, she finds it is missing; somehow she knew it wouldn’t be there.
Fifteen minutes later Lily finds Everett down by the river that runs past the McClellan ranch where he has shot and killed her lover, Ryder Channing. Everett had known that Lily was due to meet Channing by the dock that evening, but he got there before her.
Even in these early scenes there’s a sense of detachment, a feeling that captures something of the tone of Lily and Everett’s marriage. It’s almost as though they are observing rather than participating in their own lives:
Now that it was done, now that Channing lay dead between the river and where they stood, it seemed to Everett that none of them, least of all Lily, could have been involved: that all of them, he, Lily, and Channing, had simply been spectators at something that happened a long time ago to several other people. (pg. 19)
This could have been a book about the aftermath of the shooting. Instead though we move back in time, and the majority of the novel focuses on the story of Lily and Everett’s relationship from 1938 to 1959. Lily has been studying at Berkeley for a year when Everett shows an interest in her. A shy and uncertain seventeen-year-old, Lily has struggled to form any meaningful relationships at college and seems reluctant to return. She falls in with Everett as it seems like the easy thing to do. Their families come from similar stock: both own and run agricultural ranches in Sacramento; both are descended from pioneers who made their way to California in the 19th century.
Lily agrees to marry Everett, but she seems reluctant to announce their engagement. In the end, Everett drives her to Reno and they marry in secret, another scene that hints at Lily’s sense of detachment from what is happening in her life:
The ceremony was witnessed by the wife and son of the justice: the son pulled on blue jeans, the fly open, over his maroon-striped pajamas; the wife, roused unwillingly but dutiful, smiled drowsily and patted Lily’s hair. Not quite eighteen, Lily had the distinct impression throughout the ceremony that her lie about her age would render the marriage invalid, nullify the entire affair, no tears, nothing irrevocable, only a polite misunderstanding among good acquaintances. (pg. 66)
The couple return to the McClellan ranch in Sacramento to live with Everett’s father, but despite the arrival of two children, Lily feels isolated in her marriage. She has no real friends to speak of, only Everett’s somewhat flighty sister, Martha, and her attempts to host luncheons and social gatherings seem to lack any sparkle. There is something very fragile about Lily, almost as if she might snap in two at the slightest touch. I felt sad for her, especially when I read the following passage:
Well, she had at least given Everett what he wanted. Even Martha could scarcely have given him two children. But she could not escape the uneasy certainty that she had done so herself only by way of some intricate deception, that her entire life with Everett was an improvisation dependent upon cues she might one day fail to hear, characterizations she might at any time forget. (pg. 94)
At this point, I should tell you a little about Everett’s younger sister, Martha. She is very protective of her relationship with Everett, perhaps unhealthily so. It’s as if she believes that no other woman would ever be good enough for Everett, and if she can’t have him then no one else will:
“You’ve got no right to my brother,” Martha whispered, standing up unsteadily. “No right.” (pg. 119)
Martha is somewhat unstable, self-interested and prone to drinking and bouts of depression. (She reminds me a little of Cassandra Edwards from Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding, a novel that made my end-of-year list in 2014.) When Everett enlists in the war, Martha arrives at the train station where she takes centre stage gatecrashing Lily and Everett’s final moments together. Martha appears wearing a dirty raincoat over her nightgown; it’s a scene that captures the nature of her character:
Martha shrugged and got out of the car. “All right, you’re not a bit strong. It’s your act, Lily baby, you play it any way you want. Anyway,” she added, “you’re strong enough to make people take care of you.”
Even if Lily had been able to think what to say it would have been too late: Martha was already running up the walk, her hands over her face, running and stumbling on the lace hem of the pale blue nightgown, last year’s Christmas present from Everett, picked out by Lily, extravagantly expensive, handmade at Maison Mendessolle in the St. Francis Hotel. (pg. 104)
With Everett away, Lily begins an affair with one of her neighbours, Joe Templeton. She doesn’t love him though; it’s a relationship going nowhere, born out of a sense of loneliness in Lily’s marriage and Joe’s need for a break from his alcoholic wife. The affair ends in pain for Lily and Everett, but they remain together despite a lack of understanding of what they really want from each other.
Lily meets Ryder Channing through Martha – she and Channing ride out a turbulent relationship for the best part of five years. Everett dislikes him from the get-go. He sees Channing as a player; someone who could turn any situation to his advantage. Someone who has no business being around Martha. Channing is a figurehead for the new money flooding into California in the form of property investment and development. We know from the novel’s opening chapters that Lily has an affair with Channing, but I’ll leave it there to avoid revealing anything else about the plot.
I loved the melancholy tone of this story. There is a sense of things dying here: Lily and Everett’s relationship; the traditional rancher’s way of life; people die too. I can’t imagine it being set anywhere other than California. In some ways, it’s a lament for a period that has all but disappeared.
This is my first encounter with Didion, and I definitely want to read more of her work. Her prose is lucid and insightful. The book feels mature and assured for a debut novel – as if it’s been written by a more experienced author.
Didion captures Lily’s character perfectly: the feeling of isolation in her relationship with Everett; the sense that he doesn’t know how to connect with her; the feeling she is acting out a part. There is something elusive, possibly unknowable, about Everett’s character…deliberately so, I think.
I didn’t want this book to end; I wanted to stay with these characters and learn more about their lives. I’ll finish with a quote that seems to convey the disintegration that characterises the final stages of Lily and Everett’s relationship – during a brief trip to Salinas they stop at a hotel:
It did not seem to matter any more who had first resented whom, or for what. It did not seem to matter what either of them did any more: it could begin out of nothing. It could begin when they were trying hardest to keep it away, could tear apart all their tacit promises, could invade even the cunningly achieved anonymity of motel rooms with wall-to-wall tweed carpeting, rooms in which they had thought they might begin again; rooms in which she could feel, in the first glow of the first drink, that Everett was someone she did not know at all, someone to whom she might seem the gifted, graced, charmed woman she had wanted to be. (pp. 240-241)
Emma at Book Around the Corner has also reviewed Run River, and it was her excellent billet that prompted me read this book (number 10/20 in my #TBR20).
Run River is published by Vintage International. Source: personal copy.