Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

The Sabbathday River

Rate this book
When Naomi Roth pulls the body of a stabbed infant girl from the Sabbathday River, she precipitates an investigation that devastates the small New Hampshire town she hoped to save. Smart and engrossing, this thriller addresses the complex morality behind its characters' behavior with gravity and deep humanity. Idealistic Vista volunteer and New York Jewish liberal in search of a cause, Naomi turns local crafts into a booming catalogue business by the mid-'80s but never quite fits into the tightly knit New England community whose secrets unravel as townsfolk point fingers?mostly at Heather Pratt, the proud and lonely girl who delicately embroiders traditional samplers and unapologetically bears the illegitimate child of a married man. Naomi sees little of the sisterhood she preaches among Heather's co-workers and neighbors, excepting only recent arrival Judith Friedman, a fellow Jewish New Yorker who befriends Naomi and defends the modern-day Hester in court. It turns out, however, that even Judith has her secrets. Korelitz (A Jury of Her Peers) traces the evolution of '60s idealism to '80s self-absorption, feminist vision to emotional chaos, religious devotion to moral decay. After the trial's dramatic climax, the reader is left with disturbing insights into the roots and ramifications of infanticide. Korelitz securely navigates the scientific shoals surrounding the crime. Her rich, often lyrical language occasionally becomes fussy but in general serves her well in conveying local color and atmosphere and in describing the moments of passion and betrayal in this compelling study of modern women with old-fashioned desires.

514 pages, Mass Market Paperback

First published January 1, 1998

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Jean Hanff Korelitz

19 books2,135 followers
Native New Yorker! Graduated from Dartmouth College and Clare College, Cambridge. I'm the author of eight novels: THE LATECOMER (2022), THE PLOT (The Tonight Show's "Summer Reads" pick for 2021), THE UNDOING, originally published as YOU SHOULD HAVE KNOWN (adapted by David E. Kelley for HBO and starring Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant and Donald Sutherland), ADMISSION (adapted as the 2013 film of the same name, starring Tina Fey, Lily Tomlin and Paul Rudd), THE DEVIL AND WEBSTER, THE WHITE ROSE, THE SABBATHDAY RIVER and A JURY OF HER PEERS, as well as a middle-grade reader, INTERFERENCE POWDER, and a collection of poetry, THE PROPERTIES OF BREATH.

Watch for television adaptations of THE PLOT and THE LATECOMER!

I'm the founder of BOOKTHEWRITER, a New York City based service that offers "Pop-Up Book Groups" where readers can discuss books with their authors. (Online through Spring 2021) Please join our mailing list at www.bookthewriter.com to hear about our events.

If you've become aware of my work via THE UNDOING, you should know that my novel differs significantly from the adaptation -- and that's fine with me! Just know that the twists you might be expecting will likely not be there on the page. Other twists, yes, but you'll have to read the book to find them.

If you're trying to reach me, please know that I don't do any communicating through Goodreads, and that includes friend requests and following. (You may also infer that I've read more than the few books listed here, all of which are -- coincidence? -- written by me. I have another GOODREADS account, under another name, with which I keep track of my reading, but it's private.) I'm particularly inept on Facebook, as well, so trying to reach me that way will be spectacularly ineffective. If you want to get in touch, please use the contact form on my website, jeanhanffkorelitz.com

Thanks so much for your interest in my work!

Jean Hanff Korelitz

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
102 (23%)
4 stars
181 (41%)
3 stars
123 (27%)
2 stars
23 (5%)
1 star
11 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 72 reviews
Profile Image for Lisa (NY).
1,544 reviews601 followers
August 12, 2022
Although a mystery is the center of The Sabbathday River, it is really a slow building novel focusing on the character development of a few imperfect people in a small New Hampshire town, culminating in riveting courtroom drama. I love the way Hanff Korelitz digs deep into her characters. There is so much "meat" here that I didn't mind when she diverged now and then into excess wordiness.
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book557 followers
May 26, 2015
Naomi Roth is jogging beside the Sabbathday River and finds a dead baby face down in the water. She pulls it out, wraps it in a handmade sampler and carries it to the police station. Thus begins a mystery that shows up the worst of a small town full of prejudices and exclusion.

I do not generally read modern mysteries. For the most part they leave me cold or I find them predictable. This book, however, was more about the psychology of the characters to me, with the mystery hanging out there like an extra bonus wanting to be solved as well. At times it felt excessively bleak and the townspeople a little over-the-top in their lack of compassion or understanding, but this did serve to move the characters forward and explain some of their actions.

Korelitz held my interest and while I did suspect her final twist before it arrived, I did not feel that it distracted from my overall enjoyment of the book. Perhaps I will read one of her later books, since it is always nice to break from the routine and just get swept up into a "story" now and then.
Profile Image for Debra Komar.
Author 6 books80 followers
November 28, 2014
I am officially giving up on this author. I have read (endured) three of her books and the problems are consistent throughout - grossly overwritten and poorly edited. Page after page of pseudopsychoanalysis of the characters and ludicrous descriptions of settings. I was thirty pages in and could sum up the plot in one sentence. The rest was just very painful filler.

For example, here is the first sentence of chapter 5:

"To a New Englander, the northern hardwoods' annual shedding of their chlorophyll was not precisely the inauguration of beauty, the ecstatic cacophony of landscape-induced endorphins, that is was to the gaping outsider; rather, this predictable explosion of wild reds and speckled oranges, staunch evergreens and punctuations of yellow running the hillsides in their stripes and patches, was a starting pistol for the brief season in which substantial money might just possibly get made."

Less is more. How about advancing the plot or telling us about a character? The author's bio says she's a poet, and apparently has taken license to bore the hell out of her reader.

There is an interesting idea in this book (as with most of her others) but it is buried under her inability to reign it in (for example, her protagonist stops while carrying a baby into a police station to look in a mirror and comment on her own large nose. This pales in comparison to the long-winded discussion of a doll she owned as a child and lost and other "background" that I am sure the author thinks "fleshes out" her characters but just makes these books a painful mess).
Profile Image for Judy.
242 reviews
July 2, 2013
I don't know why but I usually shy away from mysteries. My friend Elaine recommended this one and I'm glad I tried it, as it had a hold on me from page 1, with Naomi out jogging and finding a baby floating in the river. Instead of calling the authorities, she wrapped the baby in one of her cooperative worker's hand-made alphabet linen samplers and brought the body to the police station where she found herself being interrogated. Naomi's considered an outsider, since she and her husband came to this small New Hampshire town not that many years ago. After their divorce Naomi stayed and started a business, marketing the handmade samplers and quilts made by local women, Heather Pratt being one of them. Making no attempt to hide her affair with a local married man, Heather was not part of the local women's clique. After giving birth to Polly, she further ostracized herself by breastfeeding Polly on the front porch of the local store. This situation set the scene for many more twists and turns, including a courtroom drama, forensic evidence, morally corrupt small town lawyers and policemen, and a second dead infant. Naomi's friend Judith is defending Heather who's on trial for the murder of two infants. Judith and Naomi share a Jewish heritage and during a Jewish holiday observation celebration the family members spend more time than I would have liked discussing the existence of God. I wanted to get back to reading about the trial. I found an explanation for the departure in the last few twists and turns of the story.
Profile Image for Jana Bouc.
735 reviews3 followers
November 9, 2009
One of the best legal/mystery books I've ever read. Very much character/psychology driven, with great plots twists some interesting philosophizing, and the best part: I'm almost to the end of the book and I still have no clue "who done it." I also really like that the three main characters, all women, are imperfect, especially the defendant who, unusual in this kind of book, is rather pathetic and even unlikable, making it even more mysterious.
Profile Image for Clark.
673 reviews20 followers
May 8, 2022
Probably 4-½ Stars is more like it. I have been meaning to read this author’s novels for a long time and was not disappointed.
Profile Image for Lora Shouse.
Author 1 book29 followers
October 19, 2018
There’s so much in here! The Sabbathday River is difficult to categorize. It is partly a murder mystery. Much of it is taken up with gripping courtroom drama. But it is mainly a story of friendship and not-friendship. The difficult choices of friendship, and the bad outcomes of not-friendship.

Though there are several sort-of-main characters, the most central is Naomi Roth. Ten years or so ago, she and her husband came as VISTA volunteers to Goddard Falls, a small town in New Hampshire. Daniel Roth sort of washed out trying to create a maple syrup co-operative in the town, but Naomi was more successful in creating a craft circle and then expanding that into a co-operative business selling quilts, hooked rugs, and embroidered pieces. Eventually, Daniel left to join a commune somewhere, but Naomi stayed.

But Naomi, a liberal New York Jew always felt out of place among the tight-lipped, conservative New Hampshire natives. To her mind, although they could gossip to each other, they never really seemed to talk in a heart-to-heart manner. And even as she managed her business and the women of the town came to the old mill she had converted for them to work in, she never felt that they accepted her.

So, when one day she notices what she thinks is a child’s doll in the river that runs near the road where she is jogging and pulls it out only to discover that it is actually a dead baby, it seems only natural that this should lead to further estrangement from the town.

As the sheriff and the district attorney are investigating the body, they are referred by about a dozen informants to a girl, Heather Pratt, who does embroidery for Naomi’s co-op. Heather has a child by a married man and has never made a secret of this, and the townspeople look down on her because of it. But it seems the townspeople shunned Heather her whole life, well before she became involved with the married man. Her mother left town as a young woman, got pregnant somewhere, and came back to leave Heather with her grandmother, who raised her. The mother then disappeared, never to be heard from again. Shortly after her daughter was born, Heather’s grandmother died.

Based, apparently on the consensus of the women of the town, Heather and her baby (about a year old at this point) are brought in for questioning. The district attorney goes out of his way to bully a confession out of her, twice refusing her requests for an attorney, among other things. At one point before finally confessing to putting the baby in the river, Heather tells a completely different tale of giving birth to a dead baby and leaving it in the mud of a pond behind her house. She asks the police to check out this story, but they refuse. Finally, the district attorney dictates the confession he wants, and she agrees to it and signs it, hoping she will be allowed to take her baby home. But of course, it doesn’t happen. At some point, Heather is asked if there is anyone she would like to take care of her baby, and she requests Naomi for the job.

About this time Naomi meets a new couple in town – New York Jews like herself. The woman, Judith, turns out to be a lawyer who is about to start working for the nearest public defender’s office. Naomi and Judith get along famously – finally Naomi has a friend she can relate to. She asks Judith to take up Heather’s case. Judith is reluctant to do so, but in the end, as it happens, she does wind up defending Heather.

When Naomi visits Heather in jail, before picking up baby Polly, Heather mentions the story of the dead baby in the pond to her. Naomi seriously doesn’t want to but finds herself compelled to go to Heather’s and check the pond anyway, and sure enough, she finds the other dead baby there. But far from exonerating Heather, this just leads the district attorney to concoct a bizarre story of ‘superfecundation’ which, he claims, led to Heather giving birth to twin babies with two different fathers (blood type evidence has indicated that Heather’s boyfriend was not likely to have been the father of the baby found in the river).

The long saga of the trial follows, and it is a thing of beauty to see how Judith demolishes the district attorney, who at first seems to be sure to win if only because of his own conviction that he is right. But during and after the trial other secrets are revealed. And some things that we would like to know we never find out.

Shortly before the end of the trial, Naomi attends a Passover seder with Judith and her family at their house. Even though none of them are particularly religious. This leads to one of the most intense and well-thought-out scenes in the whole book, which appears at first glance to have little to do with the main story. In it, Naomi gives an absolutely stunning indictment of the God of the Old Testament.
1 review
September 21, 2021
I liked this book. Was alarmed by some of the attitudes, of some of the characters, Ashley Deacon. I thought Stephen Trask was after something, and was. Loved how true to herself Naomi was, even when put in situations she did not seek. Agreed with what the midwife and Pick had to say about child rearing and pregnancy. Loved the discussion about God, even as a non-Jewish person. The twists and turns in this book where kept very interested, I could hardly put the book down. Although, Ms Korelitz can be a bit too descriptive sometimes, I really do enjoy her books. Thanks.
Profile Image for Alaina Cyr.
126 reviews
December 20, 2018
I hope Korelitz got paid per word for this book because it's the only way I can justify the length of this book. The story is told in 5 parts: Parts 1 and 2 are told through Naomi and Heather (respectively), then Parts 3 and 4 retell most of their stories through the investigation and trial. You could remove most of Parts 1 & 2, or Parts 3 & 4 without consequence. I didnt need to be told the plot twice over. The story itself kept me hooked, if I was annoyed by the writing style.
196 reviews
September 10, 2023
This woman can WRITE!! This is the fourth book that I have read by Ms. Korelitz, and, as always , I am absolutely AMAZED at how much she puts in her books that educates, as well as entertains...and, as always, I find her books hard to put down. This one was one of her early works (1999), and is about a woman who is jogging and comes across a dead baby in The Sabbathday River; a local girl, who has been having an affair with a local married man and has had a child by him, is accused of murdering this baby, which she strongly denies. It is a story, also, of small-town gossip, and the people who live there. So beautifully written, the author carves out her characters strongly and tells her story with pathos and, when required, with humor. It's a beautiful book. Read it.
Profile Image for Alisa.
36 reviews
July 13, 2017
Good but not great. Like all of Korelitz's books, I found it slow to start but with a twist at the end that made me glad I kept reading. This is so obviously a modern day telling of the Scarlet Letter: Heather Pratt as Hester Prynne, Ashley DEACON as the minister with whom she has an affair. But I found the debate over morals, ethics, public breastfeeding, and feminism as relevant today as when it was written in 1999, or when it was set in the early 1980s.
Profile Image for Jeannette Ligget.
136 reviews
February 26, 2022
Maybe 3 1/2 stars, and certainly not as good as her later works (You Should Have Known and The Plot). I was distracted by this one being loosely based on The Scarlet Letter, the main characters having the same initials, the town’s citizens shunning the woman adulteress and her child, the trial and public humiliation. The story also got bogged down in spots - some of the trial testimony and a long debate during a Seder about faith in God and Judaism. However, it was still a good read.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Courtney Mauzy.
449 reviews2 followers
February 4, 2023
Another paper back jewel found on the shelf at SBI. At first writing seemed excessively wordy but as novel developed it all flowed together for me. I loved for example the 10 - 15 page section devoted to the arguments for and against the reality of God which I found stimulating in themselves but which also were vital to conclusion of story. Courtroom scenes captivating. This is my first book by Korelitz and I think it was one of her first. I will read more from her.
112 reviews5 followers
February 9, 2021
Written in 1998, set in the early 1980s. You hope it couldn't happen now, but it probably does. A courtroom drama meets The Scarlet Letter. The ending, though disingenuous, really forces you to re-examine everything that came before.
Profile Image for Linda Brule.
4 reviews
September 17, 2022
560 reviews
June 12, 2023
A dead baby is found in the Sabbathday River, and the story follows the search for the killer. It's set in a small town that blames the "bad" girl. Most of the book is about the trial. I could see most of the answers coming in the book, so wasn't surprised by the outcome.
30 reviews1 follower
February 1, 2019
Decent mystery novel. The characters are largely unlikable, but the whodunnit aspect and tense legal drama later in the novel were (barely) worth reading through completion.
96 reviews
July 20, 2019
I really liked this book, however the ending is far fetched.
126 reviews
March 27, 2020
It took me quite awhile to engage in the characters, then hard to put down at the end. Reminds me of Chris Bohjalians style.
593 reviews
September 28, 2020
Hard to get into but interesting story line in the end. A lot of things hard to believe.
46 reviews
October 2, 2020
Eh tries to be too many different stories for one book. The good parts are interesting the others too much to get through.
1,098 reviews4 followers
May 21, 2021
I read the number of pages this book should have been if it had been property edited and then gave up. Way too many words.
Profile Image for Mary.
99 reviews1 follower
September 5, 2021
Don’t give up on this book. It took me quite a few chapters to get into it. After that it was a real page turner.
Profile Image for Rande.
280 reviews1 follower
March 5, 2023
Getting old: book that was written while you're alive in the 'present' and details feel like those in a period piece.

Still, tore through it to see what would happen.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 72 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.