Joseph Monninger’s novel, Eternal on the Water, begins with: They found Mary’s body in Round Pond. Mary, the heroine. Mary, the love of the narrator Cobb’s life. We are immediately plunged into sadness, and, in my case, bewilderment: I just got here, I rallied, why’d you have to do this now? But I was in good hands.
From the day Cobb and Mary meet kayaking on Maine’s Allagash River and fall deeply in love, the two approach life with the same sense of adventure they use to conquer the river’s treacherous rapids. But rivers do not let go so easily… and neither does their love. So when Mary’s life takes the cruelest turn, she vows to face those rough waters on her own terms and asks Cobb to promise, when the time comes, to help her return to their beloved river for one final journey.
Set against the rugged wilderness of Maine, the exotic islands of Indonesia, the sweeping panoramas of Yellowstone National Park, and the tranquil villages of rural New England, Eternal on the Water is at once heartbreaking and uplifting — a timeless, beautifully rendered story of true love’s power.
Monninger knew what he was doing. There are so many risks the author took in crafting this novel. The death of Mary Fury, right at the very first sentence, is just one. Another is the fact that this is an unabashed love story between two very lovely people—aren’t love stories the most difficult things to write, and to execute well? You’re either deemed too fantastical, or too girl-pornish (augh), or too sickly sweet.
But the risks paid off. Eternal on the Water is a lovely book, a love story. Yes, nature and the good ol’ outdoors play a big role, but I liked it, given how much I uphold the values of my sedentary lifestyle. Yes, the novel is tragic, but it still leaves you with a smile on your face. I was rewarded by well-written characters—Cobb and Mary are people I want to be friends with. They’re quirky, and they’ve got good hearts, and the dialogue between the two had me grinning. It’s charming—and I came away with an extensive repertoire of terrible knock-knock jokes, thanks to Mary.
I started it one day, and when I flipped the last page hours later, I could do nothing but smile (and, yes, sigh a little). I can’t stress enough how happy I am that I spent those hours in the company of Monninger’s creation. I couldn’t bear to pause long enough to take notes. I was absorbed, I fell in love with the characters as they fell in love with each other. From that night when we are told—as everyone finds out—that Mary Fury’s body had been found, Jonathan Cobb tells his story. Not so much about how Mary died, how both of them suffered through the pain—more on how they fell in love with each other, and why it was so right. Why it’s perfectly okay to love despite knowing the bleakness of the future. There’s no Oh we will love now because shit’s going to hit the fan. The love is constant, the tragedy nearly incidental. Meaning, these people will love each other, no matter what comes their way, and they do. And I’m glad for that.
Does this novel have flaws? Of course it does. But I didn’t mind. In fact, I don’t think I remember them anymore. There might be many that would disagree with the character’s decisions. But I don’t care. I really don’t. I was swept into the story, and days later, having had time to think about it, I still don’t care. I don’t necessarily agree with how Cobb and Mary resolved things, but me agreeing or not never became relevant—because this is their story, I believed this was their story.
I read this at a good time, I am aware of that. Some of my cynicism had been scraped off when I got to this book, and I know that helped a lot: that I was willing to believe that ordinary people could be made extraordinary because of love, that I didn’t scoff when Cobb and Mary said something particularly sweet. I’m getting soft, aren’t I?
In a universe, in a continent, in a country, in a state, in a county, on a river, in a small yellow boat, Mary says. That’s what the odds were, that a love like this could even exist. And I believe her.