The Sabbathday River by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1999 510 pp. 25.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Jean Korelitz's The Sabbathday River is a fat, old-fashioned, Anatomy of a Murder mystery that sets one imagining a latter-day Jimmy Stewart in the movie version. An impossibility, however, because in Korelitz's tale, there are no good guys, only good girls. Sorry: women.

On her morning jog in September 1985 Naomi Roth finds a baby, dead, marble-white, in the Sabbathday river, near the town of Goddard, New Hampshire. Unthinkingly, she plucks the infant from the river, swaddles it in a handmade alphabet sampler, and rushes it to the police station.

Her maternal, evidence-destroying act has a curious effect: she becomes the first suspect. Jewish, socialist, atheist, she and her doctrinaire husband first moved to Goddard as VISTA volunteers, unwelcomed by the conservative locals they were supposed to help. Realizing too late that Naomi had neither the proper radical credentials nor a trust fund, her no-goodnik husband moved to Woodstock, New York, leaving Naomi to find her way by opening a local craft cooperative, Flourish, which indeed thrived by employing the local women to knit, stitch, hook rugs, and embroider.

The absurdity of Naomi's connection to the crime is soon recognized, and suspicion immediately shifts to Heather Pratt, a teenaged dropout from nearby Dartmouth, much disliked by the locals for her open affair with a married handyman, the dreamy Ashley.

So far, we have a knowing, regional whodunit, until a second dead baby appears. Brutally interrogated by the slimy Robert Charter, the district attorney from nearby Peytonville, and Nelson Errol, the spineless local sheriff, Heather stands accused of both murders, despite the apparent impossibility of her having, much less murdering two infants. As Heather languishes in jail, the number of potential murderers widens as the plot thickens.

You'd think they didn't have television in New Hampshire, given the number of concurrent pregnancies in this tiny area. Until, of course, we learn that some of them may be the work of a handsome, seductive, serial inseminator.

Korelitz is delightfully knowing in her portrayal of small-town New England, from its WASPy, hide-bound conservatism and suspicion of new-comers to its Janus-faced beauty:

"To a New Englander, the northern hardwoods' annual shedding of their chlorophyll was not precisely the inauguration of beauty, the ecstatic cacophony of landscape-induced endorphins, that it was to the gaping outsider; rather, this predictable explosion of wild reds and speckled oranges, staunch evergreens and punctuations of yellow running the hillsides in their stripes and patches, was a starting pistol for the brief season in which substantial money might just possibly get made."

The book's central weakness, however, is its refusal to offer the reader any male character worthy of the slightest regard. The district attorney is a monster, the sheriff is a coward, the local lothario is a brutal narcissist, Naomi's husband is a mean-spirited ideologue, and the lead defense attorney's husband is a rude and emotionally distant intellectual.

One recognizes not only the receptive audience, but the need for popular literature that insightfully portrays the struggles of strong female characters. Surely, however, the legitimate topic of troubled women's lives can be explored without placing them against the background of a melodramatically extreme cast of irredeemable men.

Like Rosellen Brown's Before and After, this book should find a satisfied audience among people receptive to the portrayal of families tested by personal tragedy. One also looks forward the movie version, starring a strong Susan Sarandon, a sensitive Michelle Pfeiffer, a beleaguered Drew Barrymore, and a vicious nest of reptilian men.