Just River by Sara B. Fraser is a novel about hopeless people in Wattsville, a small upstate New York town. Once a place with a booming factory, it’s now slower and sadder. It’s the kind of town people leave as soon as they can. And yet, Carol raised her daughter Garnet here. And her best friend Sam finds a kind of grudging acceptance from people around him. Still, their lives are rough and Fraser reminds us that life is unpleasant.
The time is the 1990s, before the promise of a new century. Carol works in a community college cafeteria, ringing up purchases. Her constant worry is Garnet, who’s doing time nearby for accidentally (or not) injuring her wealthy boyfriend. The two depend on each other, but Carol also particularly depends on Sam for support.
At the time, we would’ve described Sam as a gay man into cross-dressing. Fraser uses he/him pronouns for him but gives him strong feminine sensibilities. As the book starts, he finds a decent job at the local paper with an understanding boss. Then he meets Ronaldo and the two circle around a possible connection. But what Sam really loves is singing karaoke, dressed to the nines in high heels and sparkly dresses.
Both Sam and Carol would do anything for Garnet, since they believe she’s wrong incarcerated. She’s in a world of hurt living in prison. But then she asks them to do something risky. Their plan to fulfill the request goes off the rails more than once.
Just River hovers on the edge of depressing, with moments of groaning laughter at the follies perpetrated by its main characters. It’s a tough balance, but Fraser manages to keep propelling the story forward amidst the difficulties.
Carol is every schlumpy middle-aged woman. Sam’s teetering gender queerness is a bit of a trope. And Garnet is a selfish twenty-something who expects life to go her way, despite all indications. I didn’t find any of these main characters especially likable, but I empathize with them. Their lives are a constant struggle to keep from drowning in a strong downstream river current.
This is Fraser’s second book, and I hope she keeps writing. Her work will likely continue to gain polish and subtlety. Right now, though, she delivers many heavy-handed descriptions and a somewhat rushed ending.
Still, I recommend Just River if you appreciate character studies, books set in the 1990s, and a Keystone Kops style “can they pull this plan off?” storyline.
Many thanks to NetGalley, Black Rose Writing, Mind Buck Media, and the author for a digital advanced reader’s copy in exchange for this honest review.