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Run River

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  1,766 ratings  ·  161 reviews
Joan Didion's electrifying first novel is a haunting portrait of a marriage whose wrong turns and betrayals are at once absolutely idiosyncratic and a razor-sharp commentary on the history of California. Everett McClellan and his wife, Lily, are the great-grandchildren of pioneers, and what happens to them is a tragic epilogue to the pioneer experience, a story of murder a ...more
Paperback, 272 pages
Published April 26th 1994 by Vintage (first published 1963)
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3.83  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,766 ratings  ·  161 reviews

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Aug 18, 2008 rated it liked it
I love books where everyone drinks too much and it's always really hot out and people have names like Ryder Channing.
Hank Stuever
Jul 16, 2013 rated it liked it
Having fallen hard for Joan Didion during and right after college (and reading "The White Album," "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," "Play It As It Lays" in quick succession), I next moved to her first novel -- and found it to be a real slog. What you see here, I think, is a young Didion trying to write the kind of first novel that first novelists were expected to write in the early 1960s. Forty years later, in one of her very best books ("Where I Was From", 2003), Didion unpacks some of "Run River' ...more
Apr 29, 2007 rated it it was amazing
This novel is not like Didion's other works. It was her first and, in retrospect, she has dismissed it as sloppy and an artificial past upon which she constructed a narrative about a dying generation of California pioneers. But this book is haunting for its convincing characters, its implications about California, and its unique time sequence. Another interesting piece that no one has yet touched is that in many ways it's a modern retelling of Tennyson's "The Lady of Shallot." I recommend that a ...more
Jul 04, 2009 is currently reading it
A stranger in a bar gave me this book, so when I finish it I have to pass it on to a stranger in a bar.
Jul 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
"Maybe the most difficult, most important thing anyone could do for anyone else was to leave him alone; it was perhaps the only gratuitous act, the act of love."
Mar 19, 2012 rated it really liked it
I'm not quite sure what I think yet, but I agree with one of the reviewers who said the book lost a little steam in the middle. But the mood, the writing, the creatures of California....I'll be reading more Joan Didion even if she crushes my soul once again. I'm especially intrigued by Lilly's (as far as I can tell) one flash of insight related to the patterns, or I should say neon signs that people close to us create. We often just don't see these signs til "after the fact." It's more complicat ...more
Dec 08, 2006 rated it it was amazing
Another great piece of understated fiction from Didion, about loveless marriage and whatnot, kind of like Gatsby but different. From the back of the book: "Didion writes so tightly it cuts the flesh."
Matthew Wilder
Jan 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Women in towns with long days, with nothing to do, with not much in the way of company, tallying household expenditures pointlessly, playing canasta and wishing their husbands would fuck them, and sometimes even asking them to, at which time the dude, as was the parlance of the day, “took a poke at” them—slugged them: If you recall the episode of MAD MEN with Betty Draper going cuckoo in the quiet house alone...then having Inappropriate Moments with that little kid next door...this is a Proustia ...more

I first read Joan Didion in 2000. Play It As It Lays, published in 1970, was her second novel. I grabbed it off a library shelf because I had heard of her, had heard it was a classic LA novel, but I was in no way prepared for what I found, except maybe by the seven Joyce Carol Oates books I had read by then. That disturbing tale of a woman's descent into madness as she compulsively drove the freeways of Los Angeles kept me from falling asleep after I read it in one evening.

Since then I have rea
Jan 30, 2017 rated it did not like it
some nice lines and insights but oh my god it's so boring i think it gave me a rash. it's like the great gatsby if there were no parties and no gatsby just rich people feeling uncomfortable in poorly ventilated houses
Dec 27, 2017 rated it it was amazing
There is something super retro about Joan Didion’s first novel -- which, apparently, she hated. It’s not just that it was written 40-plus years ago. It’s also the way it’s written. The topic is contemporary enough: dissatisfied wife of absent husband takes up with the town loud mouths in a not-so secret way. The relationships are complicated. The landscape is so Didion’s Sacramento. There’s a murder in, like, the first scene. It’s delish.
Jul 09, 2017 rated it did not like it
Boring and casually racist for no reason
Aug 16, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone who enjoys Didion's work
A stunning novel. Structurally and stylistically somewhat different than Didion's later work (not as elliptical and fast moving) yet the characters exhibit familiar traits – they are emotionally and physically paralyzed, impervious to change, movement and progression, and subject to failures symptomatic of the American condition.

Again Didion offers a kind of commentary on the West and the failure of the American dream. With the settling of the frontier also comes a terrifying sense of finality.
Safra Ducreay
Mar 31, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-it
I find Joan Didion to be a fascinating Essayist. And while I appreciate the melancholic, dry tone of Run, River, I don’t think this book did her writing justice. Then again, it was her debut novel. I’m going to go into detail as there’s a lot of that on here, but it’s not a face-value novel - I'd suggest you have a general understanding of California and the Elite class of the time. The book centers around family, reputation, obligation, deceit and consequence. I’ve bought Play As It Lays, The W ...more
Janet Gardner
Feb 01, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This was a re-read, but one from several decades back, when I was first discovering how lapidary prose like Didion’s could make even a story about over-privileged, unsympathetic characters such a page turner. It’s the story of Lily Knight and Everett McClellan, children of two old land-owning families in California’s central valley, whose faltering marriage might be read as a symbol of the decay of Old California. Of course, in Didion’s more-than-capable hands, it never feels like anything so he ...more
Jun 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I can only imagine that as Joan Didion neared the finish of her debut novel, with electricity arcing out of her fingers and thunder crashing around the surrounding countryside, she had some sense just how good of a book she had written. She reverses Chekhov's Gun by having it go off in the very first moments, then follows from childhood how the characters got to that climatic instant. Every chapter drips with verisimilitude -- even the relatively minor characters are given life with the deftest ...more
May 10, 2008 rated it really liked it
I was not expecting to like this. But if you're a fan of Joan Didion, there are some things you have to do. I was surprised: I loved the way she nailed obscurely familiar personalities -- the odd one who never quite feels solid on the complexities of small talk and door-holding, the petty knife-twister who sees the hurt she causes as positive evidence she's succeeded in finally connecting to another, the family man who sees his whole life breaking apart bit by bit no matter how hard he pulls to ...more
Sep 21, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Jessica by: Zan McQuade
Ever since I started reading Didion I've been enamored, and this, her first novel, did not disappoint. It's bleak, impossibly sad, and tragic. And I loved every sentence. I would re-read paragraphs just to take in the prose again, and nearly every page is earmarked for a passage I liked. But, fair warning - it's depressing and the characters aren't exactly the most likable. But that's part of what I loved about it. I understand not everyone likes reading sad novels...particularly those about a d ...more
Annie Tucker
Mar 30, 2012 rated it it was ok
Didion's first novel. Usually I love Joan Didion but there was something about the main character constantly having tragic mental breakdowns while her maid is downstairs caring for her children that made me finally understand why people have problems with her.

Also, it was sort of upsetting how many times there would be scenes of the main character Lily having a fight with her husband and then sentence, "And then he hit her and then everything was all right." Guess I am pretty happy to have been
Oct 20, 2010 rated it liked it
Some other reviewers compared this book to East of Eden for the way it tracks the history of California with that of a family, but the books are profoundly different. Like Didion's other books I've read, this lays out a nihilistic, hedonistic landscape, where people seem to traipse all over their own and each other's hearts. It reminds me more of Updike than of Steinbeck. This book is good and cleverly written, but Play It As It Lays does a lot of the same things and is better.
Mar 12, 2010 rated it liked it
Not my favorite of what Didion's done, but perhaps understandable since this was her first novel. (I think I still prefer her non-fiction.) There is a great passage about Lily and social interactions that I really identified with; it made me laugh. Martha is a wonderfully realized character. I ended up wishing she was the centerpiece of the story. Lily is too modern-day Blanche DuBois for my taste.
Jun 08, 2013 rated it liked it
Infidelity, drunkenness,self-destructiveness - in proud, decaying old-money California in the forties and fifties. All very Tennessee Williams and John O'Hara... Interesting in a sumptuous, slowly-going-to-hell kind of way.
Oct 12, 2010 rated it it was ok
It started out so strong -- eerie mood, strong sense of place, flawed, interesting characters -- but lost steam halfway through and dragged its empty carcass across the finish line.
Nov 12, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was probably very avant garde and risqué when it was first published and l'ennui and betrayal are partout. I found it was hard to get into, having a little ennui about it myself but there are some lovely turns of phrases and that brings the rating up to 3 1/2 stars. Joan Didion is loosely bringing to mind Joyce Carol Oates, albeit a cheerier, lighthearted version.

You could not, with greying hair, look strikingly frail; you could only look frail. Ch. 1

Asleep, Lily was any way he willed
Oct 20, 2016 rated it really liked it
“All the days of their lives”

This is not the California of later books by Joan Didion but a novel about Sacramento, and less Sacramento than the area down towards the delta of the Sacramento River, a flat land with a full but sluggish river, between levees, with a feeling of being out on the edge but marooned, rather than excited or exhilarated. And when the city appears it is less as the capital of the State than as a Valley town, provincial and almost gossipy. "Anybody who talks about Californ
Anie Hart
Nov 26, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2017
In october, Netflix released a documentary about Joan Didion titled “The center will not hold” directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne. In the documentary they talk about all of Didion’s books and I was reminded of my love for her books. I’ve read “The year of magical thinking” which may be the best book I have ever read, and “Blue Nights” which I found equally heartbreaking. Two for two are favorite books of mine, so I had to ask myself why I hadn’t read any of her other books.

In the documentary i
Sharad Pandian
Dec 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: fiction
In a 1967 essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem titled "On Going Home", a kind of companion piece to this book (this book was published in 1963), Didion writes:

Sometimes I think that those of us who are now in our thirties were born into the last generation to carry the burden of “home,” to find in family life the source of all tension and drama. I had by all objective accounts a “normal” and a “happy” family situation, and yet I was almost thirty years old before I could talk to my family on the
May 29, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: book-club, fiction
This book has a total of two interesting things that happen - one at the very beginning, and one at the very end. The rest of the book is pure fluff. None of the characters are likable or even interesting, and, with only two exceptions, fail to do anything at all interesting with their lives aside from drink, drink, drink, pass out, and drink some more in the morning. I think a better title might have been the Travails of the Rich Stuffy White Alcoholics. It seems likely that the plot was lost a ...more
May 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 5000-2019
I could not put this book down.
It is a novel about a marriage, it begins & ends in August 1959.
It begins with a murder.
It ends with a suicide.
It is the story of California, viewed through the eyes of Joan Didion, born & raised in Sacramento.
Families that marry into other families, families who make the riches, growing everything that can grow in California.
Women that drink too much.
Men that try to take what they can & often get away with it.
Men that drink too much.
Lily Knight marries
David Haws
Jan 26, 2018 rated it liked it
I imagine that Austen liked to end her narratives with The Wedding because it marks the point at which the conviviality of an oblique pursuit turns coercive. Perhaps Austen found the contemplation of gender oppression uninteresting and (maybe the same thing) personally irrelevant. By contrast, in Run River Didion shows us her entry character responding neurotically to marital oppression, but giving as good as she gets.

There are occasional flashes in Didion’s prose, indicative of brilliance to c
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Joan Didion was born in California and lives in New York City. She's best known for her novels and her literary journalism.

Her novels and essays explore the disintegration of American morals and cultural chaos, where the overriding theme is individual and social fragmentation. A sense of anxiety or dread permeates much of her work.
“She hoped that although he could not hear her she could somehow imprint her ordinary love upon his memory through all eternity, hoped he would rise thinking of her, we were each other, we were each other, not that it mattered much in the long run but what else mattered as much. 9 likes
“He ran his fingers over the moist ends of her hair and across her face. Her eyes were wet. Jesus Christ. How many nights had he heard Lily crying. As some parents sleep through fire, thunderstorms, and voices at the back door only to wake at a child’s whisper, so Everett heard Lily crying at night. Her muffled sobs seemed to have broken his dreams for years. He had heard her even at Fort Lewis, even in Georgia, finally at Bliss. That was Lily crying in the wings whenever the priest came to tear up his mother’s grave. Lily cried in the twilight field where he picked wild poppies with Martha; Lily’s was the cry he heard those nights the kiln burned, the levee broke, the ranch went to nothing.” 4 likes
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