East of the Mountains (Windsor Selections)

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9780754013525: East of the Mountains (Windsor Selections)
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From the author of Snow Falling on Cedars comes this bestselling novel about a dying man’s final journey through a landscape that has always sustained him and provided him with hope and challenges.

When he discovers that he has terminal cancer, retired heart surgeon Ben Givens refuses to simply sit back and wait. Instead he takes his two beloved dogs and goes on a last hunt, determined to end his life on his own terms. But as the people he meets and the memories over which he lingers remind him of the mystery of life’s endurance, his trek into the American West becomes much more than a final journey.

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Review:

David Guterson's first novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, was a true ensemble piece, in which even a high-stakes murder trial seemed like a judgment passed on the community at large. In his eloquent second novel, however, the author swings dramatically in the opposite direction. East of the Mountains is the tale of a solitary, 73-year-old Seattle widower. A retired heart surgeon, Ben Givens is an old hand at turning isolation to his advantage, both professionally and personally: "When everything human was erased from existence except that narrow antiseptic window through which another's heart could be manipulated--few were as adroit as Dr. Givens."

Now, however, Ben has been dealt a problem entirely beyond his powers of manipulation: a diagnosis of terminal cancer. With just a few months to live, he sets out across the Cascades for a hunting trip, planning to take his own life once he reaches the high desert. A car crash en route puts an initial crimp in this suicide mission. But the ailing surgeon presses onward--and begins a simultaneous journey into the past. Between present-tense episodes, which demonstrate Ben's cranky commitment to his own extinction, we learn about his boyhood in Washington's apple country, his traumatic war experience in the Italian Alps, and the beginning of his vocation.

Guterson narrates the apple-scented idyll of Ben's childhood in a typically low-key manner--and orchards, of course, are seldom the stuff of melodrama. Still, many of his ambling sentences offer miniature lessons in patience and perception: "They rode back all day to the Columbia, traversed it on the Colockum Ferry, and at dusk came into their orchard tired, on empty stomachs, their hats tipped back, to walk the horses between the rows of trees in a silent kind of processional, and Aidan ran his hands over limbs as he passed them with his horse behind him, the limbs trembling in the wake of his passing, and on, then, to the barn." The wartime episodes, however, are less satisfactory. Clearly Guterson has done his research down to the last stray bullet, but there's a second-hand feeling to the material, which seems less a token of Ben's detachment than the author's.

There is, alas, an additional problem. Begin a story with a planned suicide, and there are exactly two possible outcomes. It would be unfair to reveal Ben's fate. But as the forces of life and death yank him one way, then another, Guterson tends to stack the deck--particularly during a bus ride toward the end of the novel, when Ben's fellow passengers appear to have wandered in from a Frank Capra film. Yet East of the Mountains remains a beautifully imagined work, in which the landscape reflects both Ben's desperation and his intermittent delight. And Guterson knows from the start what his protagonist learns in painful increments: that "a neat, uncomplicated end" doesn't exist on either side of the mountains. --James Marcus

From the Back Cover:

“A compassionate and masterful achievement.” —San Francisco Chronicle

”A strikingly joyful book and a monumental achievement.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer

“The writing is wonderful throughout, the characters are vivid...heartfelt, engaging and well drawn.” —The Miami Herald

“Profound and ambitious. . . . Guterson depicts . . . moral and spiritual struggle with a clear-eyed intensity and intelligence that gives East of the Mountains its essential authority.” —Chicago Tribune

“The shape is elegant, the tone is perfectly controlled, almost cool, and Guterson’s prose shines with [a] taut polish. . . .[He] is a craftsman with a sense of literary history, one of the most serious and accomplished young American writers.” –The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Guterson possesses a remarkable gift for capturing people and places, etching them into the reader’s mind.” –USA Today

“Elegiac . . . like his first novel, Guterson’s sophomore outing is a serious and surprising book. . . . A monumental achievement.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer

“In describing the world of a dying man, Guterson invokes the ultimate book of suffering–then, to his great credit, offers it here as a consolation rather than despair.” –The Boston Sunday Globe

“This book would be a challenge to praise too highly. It resounds with clarity. It feels like home.” –The San Diego Union-Tribune

“[Guterson] has produced a clean, unpretentious and expert piece of work, filled with the immediate beauty of everyday life and the desolation of leaving it behind.” –The Washington Times

“Wonderfully written, tender toward its characters, and full of incident and insight.” –Men’s Journal

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