Run River is about a married couple, the husband’s sister, and the murder that is a result of the affairs the two women have. Lily Knight marries Everett McClellan because he asks her to. She is socially inept and has affairs with men that she does not care for. Martha McClellan has an affair with a man that she does not want to marry but her life implodes when she discovers he is marrying another woman. Everett shoots the man that had an affair with both women.
Didion’s language reads honestly: conversations are transcribed without any descriptions of how they are spoken. They are open to interpretation. Perhaps the speaker says something tentatively, or perhaps with absolute certainty. The reader decides. The dialogue is realistic; simple sentences and incomplete thoughts and misunderstood words. Not only is the reader confused by the words, so are the characters themselves. Nothing is certain in her books. A character who appears vapid can be the epitome of strength when forced to. Not only do her words echo reality, so do her people and parties. The world is familiar even though it’s almost seventy-five years ago:
even to simply sit in the dark and watch the lights on the levee road would be better than going to Francie Templeton’s, where everyone would be hot and someone would drink too much and say something with a familiar edge to it; going to river parties had become unpleasantly like watching reel after reel of badly focused home movies, the prints a little frayed by wear. (Didion, 6)
There are no excess words in Didion’s works. Each sentence is carefully constructed and all superfluous description and language does not exist. She allows her characters to be themselves: they make mistakes, carry on affairs, have fights. Didion doesn’t worry about whether or not they are likeable. They are who they are. They love one another, they love their families, and they do things to hurt one another. Didion does not concern herself with creating a clean story with order. Things go wrong and time moves on. Characters age. The worlds Didion creates are filled with lost people who don’t know how to act or what they want. They just keep living. There’s no direction, no thought for the future, or consequences. Words are left unsaid. Characters misinterpret one another. And while it could be frustrating for some readers, I find it extremely realistic. Backgrounds are provided for key characters which explain where they came from and how they became who they are.
Didion’s is characters are strong and unconventional. Lily is socially awkward and cannot interact with girls her own age. After she is married, she realizes that she still cannot connect with her peers. I’m not sure that I would like Lily in reality, but in fiction, she is a lovely vehicle for language and action. Lily does not appear to think things through, she just does want she wants because there is nothing better to do. It is a good way to live your life in many ways but when you’re married with children, perhaps the affairs should stop. Perhaps getting drunk in the middle of the day because you’re upset isn’t the right thing to do. But that doesn’t stop Lily. She is who she is without any apologies. Her husband, Everett, gets frustrated when she doesn’t pay the bills on time and thinks:
that the safety pin in her sunglasses summed up all her unattractive habits, her sloppiness of mind, her inability to accomplish the routine tasks that could be done with one hand by any of the girls he had known at Stanford. (Didion, 170)
However, he acknowledges immediately after that thought that he wouldn’t want any of those girls. He needs a woman who is lost and socially awkward. He needs a woman who can’t function in society so she is happy to stay on a ranch.
This novel is filled with people settling for one another, which kind of makes sense as the two families were pioneers of California.The man that leads other characters to suicide and murder is certainly not worth anyone’s time:
he’s the kind of man…who when your father’s dying or you’re having a miscarriage on a note’s due at the bank, depend on him, he won’t be around. (Didion, 236)
And yet he is the one all the women fuss around because he’s good looking, charming, and has a great vocabulary. They all enjoy his company even though they realize he is a poor man hoping to marry into money. Run River is about two families and how they connect. The language is honest and the characters imperfect. They settle for one another because they know nothing else.