The back cover blurb of River of Eden may make the novel sound like Romancing the Stone, but be advised that is no light-hearted trek up the Amazon with a rugged adventurer and his inexperienced female passenger. (By the way, why is it that Michael Douglas still gets gorgeous babes in real life and in the movies, while Kathleen Turner can’t get a decent movie role to save her career? Life just ain’t fair, ladies.) The novel is dark and suspenseful, featuring a defrocked Harvard-trained botanist hero of questionable sanity, and a tough-as-nails scientist heroine who has survived brutal torture at the hands of a Brazilian megalomaniac. Put that together with Glenna McReynolds’ dense, sometimes difficult to parse prose, and you’ve got a one-of-a-kind reading experience. I’m still trying to figure out whether that’s positive or negative as I write this review.
The plot of River of Eden is difficult to summarize, primarily because it remains ambiguous for large portions of the novel. This much is apparent: Dr. Annie Parrish needs to travel upriver from Manaus, Brazil, and the only person who can take her there is the infamous Will Travers Sanchez. Rumors run rampant about Will, who left the academic world abruptly and re-surfaced in Brazil after a year’s disappearance. On the surface he appears to be a washed-up has-been who ekes out a living ferrying customers in his riverboat. Annie suspects that there is more to Will than dockside boat tramp - she is well aware of his botanical accomplishments - but that’s okay, she has secrets of her own. Like why she has to get out of Manaus quickly, and what her plans are, once she reaches her final destination.
Although both Will and Annie have more secrets than a Nancy Drew mystery, they’re soon forced to bond together against several bad guys of varying degrees of sadism who are determined to capture and/or kill the duo. Too bad that Annie realizes Will is the only man she can respond to romantically, because it looks like they don’t have much of a future. As Will notes, it’s difficult to make a long-term commitment when he doesn’t expect to live longer than a few weeks.
River of Eden is fast-paced, but sometimes McReynolds’ convoluted writing style slowed me down as I went back to re-read sentences or passages. By the end of the novel I was pretty sure I understood what had happened, but a few questions lingered. McReynolds is very successful at creating a mood but less so at spelling everything out for the reader. Or maybe I’m just dense.
The novel’s best scenes involve the spirited, passionate interactions between Annie and Will. There is instant respect between the pair, although the longer Will helps “Amazon Annie,” the more he’s convinced she’s a “friggin’ magnet for disaster.” You’ve got to appreciate a woman who is comfortable carrying both an automatic weapon and an incredibly rare plant specimen. There are allusions to Annie’s difficult childhood, but this isn’t a woman who is stuck in the past - she’s on a dangerous mission and is too busy worrying about survival to care about psychoanalysis. Will’s past is even more murky, but his actions say enough about his courage and loyalty. He may or may not have mystical powers, but in the long run he has to rely on his own inherent skills.
The villains are appropriately creepy and the body count is relatively high. Oh, and if you have a snake phobia you might want to think twice. Although I presumed Will and Annie would have a happy ending, the suspense was tight enough that I sometimes wondered how they would possibly survive. My biggest complaint was that the denouement featured a deus ex machina cop-out, as well as a probable set-up for a sequel.
Glenna McReynolds created quite a stir with her Chalice and the Blade trilogy - some readers loved it, others were left mystified. Her style hasn’t changed much in her transition to contemporary romantic suspense, so I suspect readers will have both strong positive and negative opinions about River of Eden. In the final analysis, I’m falling out on the affirmative side because of McReynold’s unique voice. The romance novel world needs more authors, like this one, who are not content to produce cookie-cutter books.