Book Review: Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield

I loved this book. Not only is the cover of Once Upon a River beautiful, but I love a good story about mysterious waters. I also loved the tone, the writing style, and the wonderfully developed characters. Set in a small village on the river Thames, the story follows events surrounding the sudden and dramatic appearance of a mute girl who has been plucked from the river and who seemingly returns from the dead.

How did I hear about Once Upon a River?

I follow a lot of book reviewers on Instagram or people who love to take pictures of books and post using the hashtag #bookstagram. Once Upon a River popped up in the feed a few times and each time it had great reviews. I added it to my list of books to read. When I purchased it at my local bookstore, the sales lady gave me a mysterious smile and said, “This is a good one.”

Naturally, I couldn’t wait to read it!

Did the opening grab my attention?

Yes! The beginning pages drew me in immediately, with the narrator focusing the lens on a portion of the Thames river in England and telling the story of the people and history of that area.

“Now that you know everything you need to know, the story can begin.”

– Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield

I love a story with a great narrator who is never actually introduced on the page.

What kept me reading?

The writing is beautifully descriptive and subtle. The author makes use of a lot of foreshadowing, particularly in setting up how the main characters story lines converged at the Swan Inn.

“Something is going to happen.”

Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield

Favorites: Character, Scene, or Quote

My favorite characters are Rita, the nurse, and Daunt, the photographer. Their passions about their work––and so different from each other––resonated with me. I thought Setterfield’s character’s were all very well developed, even the antagonists. All were believable and felt like real people; I strongly hated or admired or sympathized with each one, but these two were my favorite.

How predictable was the outcome?

I was surprised by the ending and surprised about being surprised. I suspected a lot of things, but what actually happened was not one of them!

Would I recommend to a friend?

Absolutely! I have recommended Once Upon a River to several friends.

Book Club book?

Once Upon a River was a truly enjoyable read for me. I read it on vacation and I think I finished it in a couple of days. It held mostly entertainment value for me, although I’m sure there are relevant themes here suitable for a book club book: the power of a word, the power of stories and how they take on a life of their own, the folly of making assumptions, unconditional love, duty, respect, etc. Yes, I think there is plenty here for a book club.

Final thoughts …

Once Upon a River is a fantastic historical novel with elements of magical realism that successfully suspended my disbelief in a world where the impossible is possible.


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