We all know we shouldn’t, but it's tempting to judge a book by its cover. But looking at the soft focus and pastel colors on the cover of Where the River Ends, it’s easy to imagine the sort of heartfelt sentimentality contained within the novel. Author Charles Martin shows up on the back in a glossy portrait of a square-jawed young man with short hair and a bright, white smile, like an embodiment of traditional Southern charm. On this occasion, what you see is what you get.
The readers who might be drawn into the gauzy romanticism evoked on the front of Where the River Ends will indeed find a story fit to their tastes — a tale of two lovers, a terminal disease, and one last romantic canoe trip through southern Georgia. Cynics, who should feel properly warned by the back-cover portrait of Martin’s earnest grin, won't find much to appreciate here. Stories like Where the River Ends, not unlike the tear-jerkers of Nicholas Sparks, aren’t written for the bitter at heart.
Doss Michaels, the rough-around-the-edges but soft-at-heart narrator, certainly isn’t a cynic. Married to Abigail Coleman, the refined daughter of a senator, Doss tenderly cares for his wife as she struggles to survive a metastasizing case of breast cancer. When the couple realizes her illness is terminal, the pair steals away on a canoe trip Abigail wants to experience before she dies.
While the plot pushes the limits of melodrama, Martin measures his story with tight sentences and the occasional streak of eloquence. Describing a sense of adolescent alienation, Doss says, “Whenever I crept inside myself and took a look around, I didn’t see one whole ... I saw a continent cut and quartered with each section floating aimlessly on some far corner of the globe.” Though Doss’ narrations aren’t always as helpful (he describes a mugger as “like the guy from Green Mile, only meaner”), Martin uses that sense of self-reflection to yank on heartstrings as the emotions ramp up. If you’re not too hard-hearted to appreciate this unflinching romance, it’d be good idea to keep the Kleenex close at hand.