The Same River Twice by Ted Mooney begs you to put it down. It’s a convoluted plot that relies on the reader not really questioning how interconnected all of these people and events are, but to merely accept them and trust as the main characters Odile and Max trust in each other. What spurs the reader to continue are the characters, even though they are clunky fixtures banging around Paris who never truly become believable. It’s hard to take a character named Groot very seriously, especially when it brings to mind a certain slow-witted barbarian.
Max: Husband to Odile, and small, but successful film maker, American expat.
Odile: Wife to Max, small scale fashion designer.
Groot: Transient Dutchman who lives on a houseboat with his trust fund Californian girlfriend.
Rachel: Groot’s trust fund girlfriend, and sort of star of Max’s film.
Turner: Shady art dealer.
Thierry Collins: Odile’s partner in a smuggling operation from Russia. English professor in debt.
Gabriella: Turner’s assistant.
Kukushkin: Shady Russian banker / crime boss.
A few minor characters are left out, but the basic premise is that Odile and Collins smuggle some artwork out of Russia for Turner, and that the border crossing was expedited by Kukushkin. Something goes wrong, and suddenly Russian criminals start harassing Turner and Odile in search of Collins whom disappeared. Meanwhile, Max is going through an artistic transformation and begins to shoot a movie focused on Rachel, Groot, and their houseboat the Nachtvlinder. While all these various elements eventually overlap, it feels forced and disingenuous.
Also, the language dragged at the pacing of the novel. Exposition fills the pages, telling the reader how characters feel, without showing us anything. If that were changed, this would be a more captivating read.
The last part that keeps the reader interested is the quasi-mystery. This isn’t a true mystery, because it all seems so obvious, but still it pulls at the reader to see how Max will piece it together. Perhaps, the real mystery is how his film will unfold. For me, that was the real driving force of the novel. The sections about Max shooting film and thinking and talking about film were intriguing. The rest came across a little too wooden. At times, this novel felt more like a translation because there is something just off about the language.
Another disappointment is how some elements are dropped and seem to have no importance, such as all of the scenes with Odile having her portrait painted. The painter can “see” the true Odile, while no one else can. But this finishes up and nothing comes of it. Finally, the characters actions seem to have little or no consequences. Mooney writes off major developments and actions with phrases like, they didn’t need to talk about it because they would never mention it again. Or, her hand moved the gun with no thought, and he didn’t question her motives. It’s uninspired, sloppy writing.
I kept reading this story, because it was like watching a malfunctioning car racing down a speedway. The finish line is in sight, but you have no idea if it will make it there in one piece.