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Beautiful but no surprises
on 1 September 2000
'Snow Falling on Cedars' had a wonderful sense of place, a tight and intriguing plot, and moments of gentle romantic eroticism. It also presented a fascinating insight into a unique community and its problems. 'East of the Mountains' is a much less ambitious novel. The evocative description is still there, so is the romance, and Guterson still writes genuine detail without it ever becoming pedantic. But there is plenty missing.
This is a story of a journey and the plot is inevitably looser, but what makes this novel ultimately unsatisfying is its predictability. For example, we are reminded of the fact that Ben Givens is a heart surgeon at the outset, and repeatedly throughout the book, so when we get to the point where his comrade is shot in battle and he watches the doctor's fight to save him, we know exactly what the outcome will be and why.
The characters too are rather one-dimensional, Givens himself, his wife, the young couple, the girl he meets on the bus and the woman who takes him under her wing, are all consistently good and flawless people. Only the owner of the wolfhound pack is a 'bad guy' and he is bad consistently, even to his own family.
I found certain similarities to Proulx's 'The Shipping News' - the work contains beautiful prose, but overall there are very few surprises and little that could be considered genuine plot. At least Proulx created entertaining and original characters.