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Run River


January 1, 1963

Publication Date: 


Vintage International


The iconic writer’s electrifying first novel is a story of marriage, murder and betrayal that only she could tell with such nuance, sympathy, and suspense—from the bestselling, award-winning author of The Year of Magical Thinking and Let Me Tell You What I Mean.

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 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.

There hasn’t been another American writer of Joan Didion’s quality since Nathanael West…[She has] a vision as bleak and precise as Eliot’s.

—John Leonard, The New York Times

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Lily heard the shot at seventeed minutes to one. She knew the time precisely because, without looking out the window into the dark where the shot reverberated, she continued fastening the clasp on the diamond wrist watch Everett had given her two years before on their seventeenth anniversary, looked at it on her wrist for a long time, and then sitting on the edge of the bed, began winding it. 

When she could wind the watch no further she stood up, still barefoot from the shower, picked up from her dressing table a bottle of Joy, splashed a large amount of it onto her hand, and reached down the neckline of her dress to spread it, a kind of amulet across her small bare breasts: on the untroubled pages of those magazines where Joy was periodically proclaimed The Costliest Perfune in the World, nobody sat in her bedroom and heard shots on her dock.

Her eyes fixed not on the windows but upon the framed snapshots of the children which hung above her dressing table (Knight at eight, standing very straight in a Cub Scout uniform ; Julie at seven, the same summer), Lily held her hand inside her dress until all the Joy had evaporated and there was nothing left to do but open the drawer where the .38 had been since the day Everett killed the rattlesnake on the lawn: the drawer in the table by their bed where the .38 should be still and where it was not. She had known it would not be.

Nine hours before, at four o’clock that afternoon, Lily had decided that she would not go at all to the Templetons’ party. It was entirely too hot. She had been upstairs all afternoon, lying on the bed in her slip, the shutters closed and the electric fan on. Everett was out in the hops, showing the new irrigation system to a grower from down the river; Knight had driven into town; Julie, she supposed, was somewhere with one of the Templeton twins. She did not really know.

The afternoons always settled down this way. Late in June, after all the trouble, she had begun insisting that everyone lie down after lunch. Although on three afternoons everyone had gone upstairs, on the fourth she had heard Julie talking on the telephone downstairs (“You couldn’t mean it. He swore they broke up months ago”), and on the fifth she was, as usual, alone in the house. Everett and the children had been, nonetheless, extravagantly agreeable about the plan: if there was one word to describe what everyone had been about everything since June, that word was agreeable. It had been all summer as if a single difference among them might tear it apart again; as if one unpremeditated word could bring the house down around them for good.

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