My fragile rowing shell was moving fast and light down the river. It surged forward, then coasted while I recoiled for another stroke. I felt the pull of the sculls in my legs, then in my back. I heard only the splashing and the zing of the water dripping from the blades as I slipped by the ancient school. The endless lawns to starboard turned into soccer fields and then into the practice football field. The freshly painted goalposts marked the end of my practice session, and passing them I tasted my speed, closed my eyes and inhaled it, the vibrations of the boat in my spine. – From Flat Water Tuesday –
Rob Carrey has the chance of a lifetime when he is selected to attend Fenton, a New England boarding school, and row with a talented group of athletes. The prize at the end of the year could mean Harvard admission…and for a boy like Rob who has grown up in a working class town in upstate New York, being recognized by Harvard is huge. But Rob is ambivalent. His father, a talented carpenter and woodworker, wants Rob to row with the team, while Rob yearns to continue as a sculler – a one man show who is not dependent on others for his success. Eventually, Rob agrees to work out with the team and strives for a coveted seat in the God Four – the number one boat at Fenton. There is only one race they all care about – that with a rival boarding school called Warwick – and it is to that end that the team pushes themselves beyond what they think they can endure.
Fifteen years later, Rob is working as a documentary filmmaker for National Geographic and struggling to save his floundering romantic relationship with a woman named Carolyn, when he gets a letter inviting him to attend a reunion at Fenton. But it has been a long time since his time at Fenton, a time filled with the sweat and exertion of athletes and a terrible tragedy which changed them all.
The characters in Flat Water Tuesday are compelling and realistically drawn: Mr Channing, the coach with a penchant for poetry, accepts nothing but the best; John Perry and Chris Wadsworth struggle to make the team but show heart; while Connor Payne is clearly the most driven and talented rower despite his sharp edges and hints of a predator-like nature. And then there is Ruth Anderson, the first female coxswain at Fenton, a young woman whose fragile physical demeanor hides a fierce personality. The novel is narrated in the first person through the eyes of Rob as both a boy at Fenton as well as an adult dealing with loss, failed relationships and a guilt that has burdened him for fifteen years.
Irwin skillfully moves back and forth in time, recreating that final year in boarding school while showing the adult Rob as he struggles to make his life work. The descriptions of rowing, the grueling workouts, and the underlying drive of competition were compelling for me. As a one time competitive runner in both high school and college, I related to the characters as they fought to beat their best times and pushed toward that one race they thought would define their lives forever. I also loved the descriptions of a New England boarding school and its surroundings, including the cold and powerful river. Irwin takes the reader directly to the scene and immerses them in it.
Thematically, the novel looks at how tragedy impacts our decisions and futures. There is also an exploration of love, jealousy, commitment, loss, and forgiveness.
I listened to this book (9 CDs) as I drove to and from work each day and found myself so engaged in the story I sat in the parking lot of my job for an extra few moments just to finish a chapter. The audio book is read by Holter Graham who was simply wonderful in his delivery and depiction of the characters.
Readers who love literary fiction set in New England, will love this book. This is a novel which not only captures the exhilaration and glory of sport, but one which examines the often painful path towards forgiving oneself and moving forward.
An evocative, compelling novel which I highly recommend.