I remember very clearly as a teen how enchanted I was by the doomed love and cheesy dialogue of Love Story by Erich Segal. Socially mismatched college students fall in love. They marry. The girl gets leukemia. And then, as The New York Times noted, “She dies, he cries and the story ends.” (This is not a spoiler: the book starts by giving away the ending with the iconic line, “What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?”)
What does all of this have to do with Eternal on the Water? Well, Monninger has written a book that is somewhat reminiscent of Love Story, only it is much better.
The main character, Jonathan Cobb, tells us right at the beginning that Mary, his wife of eight years, has died. We further learn that she was afflicted with Huntington’s Chorea, a hereditary neurodegenerative genetic disorder for which there is no cure.
Mary and “Cobb” as Jonathan is called, meet in Maine on a kayaking trip on the Allagash Waterway and fall immediately in love. They are both professors: he is trying to replicate Thoreau’s 1857 exploration of the Allagash, and she is meeting up with some campers, “the Chungamunga Girls,” to teach them about the biology of Corvidae, or the family of birds that contains crows, ravens, magpies and others. (In the course of the book, we learn a great deal of this biology ourselves, as Mary shares the fruits of research on these most intelligent birds, as well as stories about them from mythology and folklore.)
When Mary and Cobb meet, they look each other over:
“‘Animal behaviorists,’ [Mary] said, her eyes still on me, her mouth forming the words slowly, ‘call this a copulatory gaze. Don’t flatter yourself. We’re sizing each other up. The gaze helps continue the species, that’s all. It is a million years old, so don’t flatter yourself too much. It’s just Darwinism paying a visit.”
Like Jennifer Cavilleri in Love Story, Mary perhaps sounds a little too much like she swallowed a scriptwriter, but she is much more likeable than Jennifer – possibly even too likeable. And Cobb, like Oliver in Love Story, is smitten and will do anything in the world for this woman. But besides this very basic scaffolding (and maybe also the amount of Kleenex you eventually need), the similarities between the two books end. Monniger’s writing is much better: sparse and realistic, and sometimes poetic and evocative.
Later, on that first evening together, Mary says to Cobb:
“Now would be a good time for our first kiss… I mean, if we are going to kiss anyway, sometime, tonight or some other time, right now seems like a good moment. It is for me, anyway. How do you feel about it? Or maybe you don’t want to kiss me and I’ve overstepped. I do that sometimes in other areas of my life. I guess what I mean is, I want to kiss you and so there you go.”
They call the connection they experience with each other “Yeti love”: It arises from a meeting based on a thousand coincidences that had to happen for two people who are perfect for each other to meet. Mary says,
“You never expect to see it, but you’ve heard it’s out there and it might just be a legend. But you keep looking for it anyway.”
Over the next eight years, they try to live out their dreams, knowing that one day, they will need to return to the Allagash, but only one of them will leave.
Evaluation: I have to say there is little more delightful than a book that charms you from the very beginning. (Maybe it’s something about books that take place in Maine – this is the second one I’ve read this year that made me happy by the quality of the prose.) The writing is beautifully crafted, and the characters are all endearing. Some might think Mary a bit too perfect, but I saw her as believable: courageous, vulnerable, and determined to live fully for every moment of life that was left to her. And once again, I became convinced by an author – through his characters – of the green and lush appeal and even spirituality of the unmolested Maine wilderness.
Nota Bene: Invest in Kleenex.
Rating: 4/5 stars
Published by Gallery, 2010