Perfume River

Perfume River book cover

Perfume River
Robert Olen Butler
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2016

273 pages (hardcover)

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Robert Quinlan is a seventy-year-old historian teaching at Florida State University, where is wife Darla is also tenured. Their marriage, forged in the fervor of anti-Vietnam War protests, now bears the fractures of time, with the couple trapped in an existence of morning coffee, solitary jogging, and separate offices.  The cracks in Robert and Darla’s relationship remain under the surface, whereas the divisions in Robert’s family are more apparent: he has almost no relationship with his brother Jimmy, who became estranged from the family as the Vietnam War intensified. As Robert and Jimmy father, who is a veteran of World War II, draws near to the end of his life, aftershocks of war ripple across the family once again, with Jimmy refusing to appear at his father’s bedside. And an unstable homeless man whom Robert meets at a restaurant and at first takes to be a fellow Vietnam veteran turns out to have a deep impact not just on Robert, but on all of the people closest to him.

–Description from publisher

Perfume River brings out the English Major in me. First, I wasn’t sure what to say about it, then I felt like I could write a paper on it. Since the author is a Professor, that should be a compliment.

At first, I thought this book would be tougher to read since it has a focus on the Vietnam War; however, much of the focus is on the personal feelings about and individual consequences of that war. It follows two men, both named Bob, who have experienced life through the eyes of veterans. The novel also follows Jimmy, Robert’s brother who defected to Canada instead of fighting in a war he didn’t believe in. All is brought into sharper focus by the death of the Quinlan patriarch, a veteran of World War II.

At first, the ending appears abrupt, but this is a novel that takes time to settle. This novel views war as part of the circle of life. Men are bound to go to war for various reasons and return with various results. It also takes a look at the roles of women who love these men. They may never know what happened but still are expected to treat the topic, and often their men, with kid gloves.

Mr. Bulter is very descriptive with his prose. Looks lead to a shift in focus from one character to another, which is occasionally confusing, but most often not. At times it’s like reading a play where a character moves downstage to put to focus on another.

Overall it’s a good read. It’s outside of my comfort zone, which shows in my difficulty reviewing it.

It’s a great choice for a book club as it allows for discussion.

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