Push Not the River by James Conroyd Martin

By Ekta R. Garg

July 5, 2012

Rated: Bookmark it!

A young countess rides the various challenges life throws at her and manages to restore her sense of self while fighting for her country’s freedom from the boundaries of class.  James Conroyd Martin’s book Push Not the River offers readers everything a good book should: romance, intrigue, mystery, and political machinations.  Despite not hailing from Polish heritage himself, Martin delves with expertise into the eighteenth century in that country and brings to life a tale based on the actual diary of Countess Anna Maria Berezowska.

Anna Maria lives an idyllic life; her mother reserves love and affection for special occasions, but Anna Maria thrives on her father’s uninhibited love and dotes on him as much as he does on her.  But when Anna Maria’s father is murdered by a vengeful peasant living on the Berezowska estate and Anna Maria’s pregnant mother dies from grief, the young countess suddenly finds herself as the head of the estate and steeped in shock.  Anna Maria’s father had rejoiced only months earlier when the people had passed the Third of May Constitution leveling the ground between the classes, but now seventeen-year-old Anna Maria realizes such joy doesn’t hold much weight in the face of the loss of her family.

Anna Maria’s maternal aunt, Stella Gronska, arrives on the Berezowski estate along with her husband and daughter and become Anna Maria’s guardians.  Anna Maria finds some comfort in having family around again, although her cousin, Zofia, seems quite the flippant young creature, interested in parties and men and her own pleasures and pursuits.  This becomes most apparent when Anna Maria meets Jan Stelnicki, the young man from the estate that borders the Gronski estate; Anna Maria finds herself intrigued by the young lord, and Zofia secretly becomes furious.  She has had her designs on Jan for a long time, and Jan has only resisted.  How is it possible Jan could be interested in Anna Maria, clearly less of a woman than Zofia?

Zofia sets into motion a scheme to install Anna Maria in her own place in the arranged marriage her parents have set for her, and this plot changes the course of Anna Maria’s life.  As Anna Maria undergoes a terrible situation and then marries the man originally intended for her cousin, she begins to understand that her life is intertwined with Zofia’s and she alone must find a way to separate herself from Zofia’s designs.  Against the backdrop of Poland’s bid for democracy, Anna Maria fights back and puts every ounce of effort into living life on her own terms.

Author James Conroyd Martin wrote the book in this century, but it conveys the feeling and depth of the difficulties of life in Europe in the late 1700s.  As Anna Maria slowly gets involved in the struggles of the common people of Poland, Martin conveys with ease the problems of the various classes and exactly what it means for Anna Maria to cross the lines between those classes.  He provides readers the right balance between historical narrative and finesse in fiction, and readers will never feel bogged down with the history sections of the book.

While some paragraphs may feel slightly weighed down by too many words, Martin never lets this become an incredibly serious problem.  And his descriptions of the Polish countryside as well as old-time Warsaw certainly delight the imagination.  I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good old-fashioned historical novel; that it is grounded in truth only makes it that much more compelling, as does the Polish proverb from which Martin derived the title and that encapsulates Anna Maria’s spirit and her life story: “Push not the river; it will flow on its own accord.”


What the ratings mean:

Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection.  It’s definitely worth it!

Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.

Bypass it–Free time is precious.  Don’t spend it on this book!

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