THE RIVER RUNNING BY by Charles Gidley
Kirkus Star


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Upstairs, Downstairs fans, attention. Here is an immensely classy soap-opera/saga, chronicling the domestic miseries of a British family based in Portugal's winemaking country from the 1930s to the 1970s. Indeed, first-novelist Gidley (a BBC scripter) writes with such meticulous intensity that the characters have a vitality beyond their simplified outlines; and the repeated cry of three generations, ""What has gone wrong?"", thuds with doleful but appropriate resonance throughout. In the 1930s Bobby Teape--a good chap to his peers in the British colony of Oporto and an ""ugly Englishman"" to the natives--is handed the reins of the family winemaking business just before his mother's death . . . and just after he has broken his engagement to ""suitable"" but waspish Joy Remington. So, rebounding on a visit to England, Bobby weds kind, gentle Ruth--who's also on the rebound: she has apparently been rejected by nice, beloved Peter Merriman, who hasn't answered her letters to him in the Far East. (Actually, there's been a disastrous post office blunder.) And, once back in Portugal, endearingly bear-like Bobby shows his petulant, callously repressive side, squelching Ruth's efforts to help the native poor. Ruth perseveres, however, taking in starving fishergirl Natalia, whose newborn child Eduardo is nearly dying; what Ruth doesn't know, unfortunately, is that Bobby raped Natalia and believes Eduardo is his child. (In fact, the baby's father: now dead, was a fisherman whom Natalia believed to be her father!) And, as the Bobby/Ruth marriage chills rapidly, Ruth gives birth to poor doomed Stella--who hates her father even at age five (his post-WW II return sours the household), seems to spin out of control at age ten (fits of anger and violence will erupt ever after), and is expelled from an English school when her account of an innocent love with Eduardo is found. (She ragefully breaks every bottle in Bobby's wine cellar.) Bobby, still believing Eduardo is his son, banishes him to the army. Stella marries instead warm-hearted, jaunty RAF officer Sam--who'll be a victim of her anger (""not a part of her but something that inhabited her"") until she leaves him. Ruth, just before a fatal operation, telephones a final farewell to a recently resurfaced Peter. Widower Bobby now marries Joy, the powerful mother-figure he always really wanted. And Stella, back in Portugal, finally reunites with Eduardo . . . but commits suicide when she hears that false story about his parentage. Yes, this is domestic drear galore, clanking with coincidence in the soap/melodrama tradition. But, with fine use of the English-in-Portugal setting, it's neatly, atmospherically, urgently told--often rising above the familiar, contrived effects of the genre.

Pub Date: Oct. 20th, 1981
Publisher: St. Martin's