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Adventurous,
Dramatic,
Life Changing

5 reviews

Once Upon a River: A Novel
by Diane Setterfield

Published: 2018-12-04
Hardcover : 480 pages
19 members reading this now
61 clubs reading this now
6 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 5 of 5 members
“One of the most pleasurable and satisfying new books I've read in a long time. Setterfield is a master storyteller...swift and entrancing, profound and beautiful.” —Madeline Miller, internationally bestselling author of Circe and The Song of Achilles

“A beguiling tale, full of ...
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Introduction

“One of the most pleasurable and satisfying new books I've read in a long time. Setterfield is a master storyteller...swift and entrancing, profound and beautiful.” —Madeline Miller, internationally bestselling author of Circe and The Song of Achilles

“A beguiling tale, full of twists and turns like the river at its heart, and just as rich and intriguing.” —M.L. Stedman, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Light Between Oceans

“This is magical, bewitching storytelling...High prose expressed with rare clarity, story for the unashamed sake of story, a kind of moral dreaminess…well, the list continues to grow.”—Jim Crace, National Book Critics Circle winner and author of Being Dead and Harvest

From the instant #1 New York Times bestselling author of the “eerie and fascinating” (USA TODAY) The Thirteenth Tale comes a richly imagined, powerful new novel about the wrenching disappearance of three little girls and the wide-reaching effect it has on their small town.

On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed.

Those who dwell on the river bank apply all their ingenuity to solving the puzzle of the girl who died and lived again, yet as the days pass the mystery only deepens. The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? And to whom does she belong? But answers proliferate nonetheless.

Three families are keen to claim her. A wealthy young mother knows the girl is her kidnapped daughter, missing for two years. A farming family reeling from the discovery of their son’s secret liaison, stand ready to welcome their granddaughter. The parson’s housekeeper, humble and isolated, sees in the child the image of her younger sister. But the return of a lost child is not without complications and no matter how heartbreaking the past losses, no matter how precious the child herself, this girl cannot be everyone’s. Each family has mysteries of its own, and many secrets must be revealed before the girl’s identity can be known.

Once Upon a River is a glorious tapestry of a book that combines folklore and science, magic and myth. Suspenseful, romantic, and richly atmospheric, the beginning of this novel will sweep you away on a powerful current of storytelling, transporting you through worlds both real and imagined, to the triumphant conclusion whose depths will continue to give up their treasures long after the last page is turned.

Editorial Review

An Amazon Best Book of December 2018: When a man bursts into a riverside inn on the longest night of the year, covered in blood and carrying a dead child, the patrons of the Swan are beyond thrilled to find themselves in the middle of a swiftly unfolding tale—especially when the child is determined to actually be alive. Is the mute girl the long-missing daughter of a nearby wealthy family, or the bastard child of woman who threw herself in the Thames only a day or so earlier? Inquiring minds want to know. Weaving among the turmoil is a buoyant dance between science and superstition, as Darwin's ideas, psychiatry, and scientific observation waltz with skullduggery, a curiously wise pig, and a man—or ghost—who patrols the Thames. As Setterfield (The Thirteenth Tale) juggles a colorful mob of characters whose lives are upended by the mysterious young girl, the joy of storytelling permeates every moment in this lively and wise historical novel. --Adrian Liang, Amazon Book Review

Excerpt

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Discussion Questions

1. The Swan Inn, Buscot Lodge, and the towns and villages along the river Thames create a very specific atmosphere for the story that unfolds. What role does the Swan itself play? Could this story have taken place anywhere else?

2. To judge by such details as photography and transport as described in the novel, the events appear to be set in the 1870s or thereabouts. Could the novel have been set at another time in history? What would have had to be different if the author had chosen another period?

3. What is the significance of the river?

4. By the time Vaughan had written a concise two-page account of Amelia’s kidnapping to his father in New Zealand, “the horror of it was quite excised.” What effect does the act of storytelling have on Vaughan? What about the other characters?

5. A wedge is driven between the Vaughans as they struggle to come to terms with the loss of Amelia. In the end, what brings them together? How?

6. How does Robert Armstrong, raised outside family life in circumstances of financially cushioned neglect, turn out to be such a good man?

7. “Sometimes I think there is nothing more a man can do. A child is not an empty vessel, Fleet, to be formed in whatever way the parent thinks fit. They are born with their own hearts and they cannot be made otherwise, no matter what love a man lavishes on them.” Do you agree with Armstrong’s lament at the end of the book? Is it possible if he had been a different kind of father things might have turned out differently for Robin?

8. Is Lily White responsible for her actions?

9. Consider the importance of family in the novel. What does it mean to Robert Armstrong? What does family mean to Daunt and Rita? And Victor? What about Lily?

10. It’s easy to get carried away talking about the key families in the plot, the Vaughans, the Armstrongs, and Lily and her brother, but what about the family at the inn? What important functions do they perform? And what do the drinkers—largely unnamed—add?

11. Storytelling is central to Once Upon a River. The story of Quietly the ferryman is an invention of the author, but it contains many elements from traditional or mythological tales. Does it remind you of any other stories in particular?

12. How many types or styles of story are told in Once Upon a River? Be as wide in your interpretation of “story” as you like!

13. Folk beliefs are still alive on the riverbank—changelings, witches, and dragons are all still real to some, and the Armstrongs believe Bess has a Seeing eye. What are the real-life consequences of these stories? Which characters have faith in these stories, and which do not? How does it affect their actions?

14. In the context of women’s lives in the nineteenth century, what do you make of Rita’s reluctance to marry? What brings her to reconsider?

15. Is the fortune-telling pig mere light relief or something more?

16. The identity of the girl is one of the driving mysteries of Once Upon a River. What were your early thoughts about who she really was, and did they alter as the story developed? What did you think of the way this question was resolved at the end?

17. The ending elaborates on the “return to life” of children apparently drowned. Did this come as a surprise to you?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. The art of oral storytelling is at the heart of Once Upon a River. It used to be central in every human society, but with the advent of literacy, and then TV and cinema, it has become rare to gather to listen to someone tell a story from memory. How about resurrecting the art by devoting part of a book club meeting to telling stories aloud?

2. Man is said to be the storytelling ape. Stories are the way people make sense of the world and their place in it. Are there stories (family stories or personal ones) that have shaped you and your sense of the world?

3. Diane Setterfield’s book The Thirteenth Tale was made into a BBC film starring Vanessa Redgrave, and Once Upon a River is to be a television series. Whom would you cast to bring the mysterious events of the Swan in Once Upon a River to life? Share your casting picks for Margot, Joe, Jonathan, Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong, Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan, Rita, Daunt, Lily White, Victor, and the others with your book club.

4. Many of the settings in the book are based on real places that stand today in England: Ye Olde Swan, still a working pub; Buscot House (the model for Buscot Lodge), now owned by the National Trust and open for visits; and Kelmscott Manor, a grand house also open to visitors, are all situated along the Thames in Oxfordshire. Should you be so lucky to go, start planning your trip at www.experienceoxfordshire.org. And if you can’t go in person, how about a virtual trip down the Thames at www.thames.me.uk?

Suggested by Members

discussion questions were great
by Bodacious (see profile) 07/12/19

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

Read at least 100 pages
by Bodacious (see profile) 07/12/19
Audible is tough too...this is much better received if actually read. At least the first 100 pages.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
by ebach (see profile) 12/02/19

Diane Setterfield's ONCE UPON A RIVER is four mysteries with the Thames River as the backdrop. The foremost mystery is that of a nearly drowned (not really "returned to life," as explained i... (read more)

 
  "Storytelling vs Life...is there a difference"by Bodacious (see profile) 07/12/19

Hint- you need to make it past the first 80 pages; Then it will all become clear; Well written prose surrounding the river and how life compares. Our club fell in love with many of the characters. The... (read more)

 
by Huguenot (see profile) 05/21/19

 
  "once upon a river"by Carolynr (see profile) 04/12/19

i'ave read a few of the not as highly rated reviews and I get their comments. Some felt the blackness and racism of the time was not portrayed appropriately and realistically. I say this is just a story.... (read more)

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