Review of “Eternal on the Water” by Joseph Monninger

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.)

The Allagash

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

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26 Responses to Review of “Eternal on the Water” by Joseph Monninger

  1. I have wanted to read this book, but this is the best and most convincing review I’ve read yet. Now I’m *definitely* going to pick it up.

  2. Steph says:

    “Mary perhaps sounds a little too much like she swallowed a scriptwriter…”

    Ha! Best thing I’m likely to read all day! Amazing!

    Also, I don’t normally seek out tearjerker books, but this one does sound compelling. I’m nerdy enough that the fact they’re both professors kind of appeals to me…

  3. Better than Love Story? Sign me up! This sounds like a great read, and I love your write up of it! And it sounds like you might be a fan of living in beautiful Maine? I’ve visited there once and absolutely adored everything about it!

  4. Care says:

    This post is rather endearing. Maine is great place.

  5. zibilee says:

    I had not yet heard of this book, but it sounds like a really great read. A friend of mine is visiting Maine as I type this, and I bet she would love the book as well! Thanks for the great review!

  6. Sandy says:

    Oh, Love Story just ripped me to pieces when I was a teenager. I didn’t think books got any better than that. Nice to hear that yes they do! I like to be charmed, and was recently in reading One Day. You just want to crawl inside these stories, and don’t even mind that they make you cry like you lost your last friend. I’m going to have to make a note of this one.

  7. bermudaonion says:

    I remember when Love Story was so popular, too, but I was never interested in it for some reason – maybe because I knew the plot going in. The fact that Eternal on the Water charmed you from the beginning says a lot to me – I’m sure I’d need a case of tissues to read it.

  8. Trisha says:

    “Swallowed a scriptwriter”!! LOL! I was laughing so hard after reading that.

  9. Oh yay! I was pleasantly surprised by this story and so I’m glad that you liked it, too!

  10. Margot says:

    I liked this book too. Although it’s a beautiful love story, I didn’t make the connection with Love Story. I agree this is so much better. Love Story was too sappy. This is an adult love story, very complex and multi-layered.

    It doesn’t seem to be getting enough conversation among book bloggers. I though this would be super popular. I’m disappointed.

  11. Barbara says:

    I was a somewhat sappy teenager when I read Love Story so I cried all the way through it. Probably wouldn’t have the same reaction now – my sappy days are long gone. I love books set in Maine. Dave was born and raised there, and we got married by the ocean in Ogunquit, ME with the surf drowning out our words. We both love the state but it’s not an easy place to make a living so we’ve been gone for a long time now. We really miss the ocean though.

  12. JoV says:

    Aww… I didn’t know you are such a romantic. Glad you love a tearjerker. I’d like to read a book like this one!

  13. you had me at “Maine…”

  14. Staci says:

    I remember reading “Love Story’ in my early twenties and loving it. This one sounds like a great one for me now at this age…I will make sure I have the kleenex on hand!

  15. Jenny says:

    My mother made fun of Love Story mercilessly when we were growing up, so by the time I got old enough to watch it, it was deeply entrenched in my mind that it was laughable. I watched it with my sisters and we snickered all the way through. Maybe this book could be the sad Love Story experience I missed out on. :p

  16. softdrink says:

    I’m going to have to pass, as I don’t think I’m up for a sob-fest.

    And I’ve never read Love Story. Does that make me abnormal? Umm, maybe that should be abnormal-er?

  17. Darlene says:

    Ooooh, I love a book that needs a box of kleenex to go with it. I do remember seeing this one a while back and thought it sounded good.

  18. Julie P. says:

    I loved LOVE STORY so this one is definitely appealing to me!

  19. Belle says:

    Sounds like a beautiful read. I love that last photo you posted – gorgeous.

  20. amymckie says:

    This sounds like a really great read. I especially love that it includes parts of her research. Very neat.

  21. Alyce says:

    There are times when I enjoy a good tearjerker, but I really have to be in the mood. I thought Love Story was great when I was a teen too, but am glad to say that I can now see how cheesy it is. I will keep this one in mind though for when I am need of a good cry.

  22. Nymeth says:

    This sounds lovely. And Maine sounds so beautiful! That’s actually the area of the US I’d like to visit the most.

  23. Ti says:

    I don’t think I could read either one. Love Story or this one. Sounds too sad to me. I’m sure the setting had lots to do with your liking it so much. Who doesn’t love Maine? No one I know.

  24. Jenners says:

    Sometimes I love a good cry … I’ll keep this in mind for when I feel the need. (And have stocked up on Kleenex.)

  25. stacybuckeye says:

    I have this book, but it was way down on my priority list and then you had to go and compare it to Love Story, which I loved. I’ll keep this in mind when I want to have a good cry 🙂

  26. Colleen says:

    I really enjoyed this book and, like you, was charmed from the start.

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