Monday, May 2, 2016

Book Club: East of the Mountains

**WARNING: Contains some spoilers of David Guterson's books "The Other" and "East of the Mountains." **

Probably the most ironic thing about this month's read is that last month I gave up on a book because it was so depressing...and then this month, I decided to read a book about a man with terminally ill cancer who goes back to the area he grew up in with the intention of committing suicide.

Good one, Jess.

Honestly, though, I knew what this book was about before I decided to make it this month's pick, and I still went for it. That probably says more about how much I trust David Guterson than how much I trust my own emotional stability, to be honest. One of my very favorite books is a book he wrote called The Other, which (spoiler alert) also involves death, but he handled it so beautifully that I felt confident that East of the Mountains wouldn't drive me off an emotional cliff.

You see, death is sort of a progression, another part of life that has purpose and meaning; it's not glorified by any means, but it's not senseless either--at least not in Guterson's books. He spends so much time with character development that you build real attachment to his characters--you want to be with them until the end, you see. Even if the end comes in the form of death in the book, it seems natural, almost more natural than just leaving the character to live out the rest of his fictional life away from your interested, invested gaze.

Anyway, now that I've spent all that time defending my choice of book, we'll dive into a plot summary and talk about why I loved this book---maybe more than any other I've read yet this year.  The main character, Ben, is a retired heart surgeon whose wife recently passed away, and who has found out that he himself has terminal colon cancer. He has family--a daughter and grandson in particular that he is especially close to--and is torn between facing an agonizingly slow and painful death that they would be forced to watch happen, and wandering off into the woods near his childhood home with his father's shotgun, staging his suicide to look like a hunting accident (both for insurance purposes, and to protect his family from the emotional toll of his decision). He sets out to do the latter. His journey there is eventful in ways both good and bad, and he meets a variety of people along the way. Flashbacks give us peeks into Ben's childhood and experiences in World War II as well (remember that incredible character development I mentioned Guterson being so adept at?).

I'll leave the ultimate end of the book out, because I recommend reading it if you haven't, but I'll say that it does end feeling resolved. I struggled with Ben's decision throughout the book, both understanding why he wanted to end his life and not suffer further, but also feeling pained and burdened by it--hoping he would change his mind. I truly couldn't figure out where the book would end up--if it would be that Ben realized through his encounters with all the other characters that there was some bit of life worth living still, or if he would feel at peace with ending his life, having had such an adventure (and having helped so many people) during his journey. The book's solitary fault, in my mind, is that the other characters in the book seem very one-dimensional compared to Ben; whether this is due to the contrast with Ben's multifaceted, complicated nature, or for the sake of brevity can't be said. Personally, I would rather read through an extra 200 pages if that  was what was required for more nuanced secondary characters; it may just be that Guterson's talent for character development makes me greedy, though.

Though it isn't his strongest book, it's still near the top of this year's reads for me (even if I am reading it 15 years after its release....).

Did you read along? Have you read any of David Guterson's other books? What did you think?

I'm taking a book club break for the summer to read the Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) series. I'll pick up in the fall with The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

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