Reading The River Midnight

P1010137It’s been awfully quiet here hasn’t it?  An entire week has sped by with nary a morsel from this ravenous reader.  There has been reading, but also gardening and music making and walking outdoors, as I feast my senses on the first wondrous days of spring.

These lilies, a combination Mother’s Day/Anniversary gift, will eventually find their way into my front garden. For now, they’re sitting on my breakfast table, soaking up the morning sun.   Their graceful elegance takes my breath away, catching me by surprise as I go about my homely little kitchen tasks.

I’ve been reading one book this entire week, and while it usually irks me to spend so long on a book, I’m perfectly content to let this one spin out slowly so I can luxuriate in every word and nuance.   I chanced upon it quite by accident last weekend at a monstrously huge book sale, the author’s name quite jumping out at me from the rows of books on the shelves.   “Lilian Nattel!” I exclaimed to myself.  “I know Lilian Nattel!” 

Indeed I do, having just recently met Lilian through her fascinating blog (s).   So I was quite excited to find a copy of her first novel The River Midnight, and grabbed it up immediately.

Having read Lilian’s blog, it was no surprise that her book would capture my heart immediately.   The story is centered around life in a shtetl  (a Jewish settlement) just outside Warsaw in the late 19th century, and is built around the lives and experiences of four women – Misha, the midwife, who conceives a child out of wedlock; Faygela, who tries to maintain her love of learning while raising an ever growing family; Hanna-Leah, who can’t conceive the child she wants so badly; and Zisa-Sara, who moved to America with her scholar husband, where they both died, leaving two children behind.   Supporting characters include men and children, who round out this picture of community life.

The novel is structured in such a way that a series of core events is seen from the perspective of each woman, as well as some of the men in their lives.  So the reader re-lives these events over and over and again, but sees them slightly differently each time, coming full circle by novel’s end. 

It’s obvious that countless hours of research went into the writing of this book, for the portrayal of life in the shtetl is so vivid and true.  Yet, unlike some other well researched historical novels which bombard the reader with too much information, the wealth of historical ideas and images flows effortlessly through The River Midnight.  After reading for a while, I’m startled find myself in a suburban living room, rather than in Misha’s cottage surrounded by herbs and potions, or in Alta Fruma’s parlor, laying the white tablecloth for Shabbas.  It’s one of those rare books the reader doesn’t just read, but actually resides in.  

One of the best things about this book blogging adventure is the ability to “meet” some marvelous writers and gain insight into their lives and thoughts apart from their work.  Reading their books then becomes an even richer experience – at least it does for me – and I’m excited to see so many authors using this opportunity to make contact with their readers in a new way.   And while The River Midnight was first published in 1999 (before blogging became a way of life!), it’s a timeless tale of people and relationships and religion and community life – one well worth reading and savoring for more than a week!



The River Midnight, by Lilian Nattel

published 1999, Scribner Paperback Fiction

398 pages

With Recommended Reading compiled by the author

 and Readers Group Guide


13 thoughts on “Reading The River Midnight

  1. I know what you mean. I’ve been absent from my blog as well for the same reasons. I just can’t help it when the weather starts getting nice. I have been reading though — just not posting. This sounds like a very interesting book. I don’t know much of anything about Jewish life, but I know what you mean about the fine line between being historically accurate and ‘fact-overload.’ Enjoy your reading and other Spring activities!

  2. I have this to read! But I saw instantly it was the kind of book I’d want to spend some proper time with, not just squeeze into corners and I’m waiting to find the right moment for it. But I’m really looking forward to it!

  3. Well isn’t this glorious? I’ve gotten to know LN through you, I now follow her blog daily (as I do yours) and here you are writing about LN’s novel, which I intend to read as soon as my life has room for reading again.

    Is there a word for this? It’s not serendipity. It’s…webbed.

    • “Webbed” – perfect!

      One of the things I most loved about The River Midnight is the way it explores the inter-connection between people and time.

  4. “After reading for a while, I’m startled to find mysef in a suburban living room…” No better recommendation than that. I am going to have to read this book. Thanks, Becca!

  5. I didn’t read much this week either – my Sunday Salon was only one short little paragraph. I finished my entire windfall from Autumn Hill Books, which left me with a literary void. But this book sounds very fascinating. I like history and have a bit of an interest in Judaism, so I’ll be sure to pick this up sometime.

  6. Enjoyed your thoughts on Nattel’s The River Midnight, and perusing your beautiful blog page — your link came up on my page when I posted a backlist review of the book. You might also be interested in checking out Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated if you haven’t already — I included a review of it with the Nattel review on my blog.

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