The Sabbathday River

Polly Morrice reviews 'The Sabbathday River' by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Published March 30, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Jean Hanff Korelitz's engrossing second novel is a tale of adultery, infanticide and needlework. "The Sabbathday River" unfolds in 1985 in Goddard, New Hampshire, a tight-lipped, narrow-minded sort of place that could be a sister city to the inbred hamlets of "Deliverance." Naomi Roth, the heroine, remains an outsider in Goddard despite her nine years' residence. Along with stimulating the local economy by running a successful crafts collective, Naomi sets the plot in motion with her discovery of a dead baby girl floating in the Sabbathday River.

At first, the county district attorney assumes the infant is hers -- a wounding irony, as Naomi has recently divorced her husband over his refusal to have children. But the DA's suspicions soon fix on another outsider: Heather Pratt, a Dartmouth dropout, who has carried on an open affair with a married man and borne a child by him. For these sins and for her obliviousness to public opinion, Heather and her baby are shunned by the townspeople. When she breastfeeds in public, an outraged storekeeper calls the police. (Korelitz clearly enjoys drawing parallels to another literary adulteress: Her Heather, who sews for Naomi's collective, embroiders a sampler "with an outsize A of deepest red in the upper-left corner").

Within days of Naomi's grim discovery, Heather is "invited" to the police station and subjected to relentless interrogation by the district attorney, Robert Charter. Under duress, she confesses to killing the baby found in the Sabbathday River. To Naomi, the only person in Goddard who has stood by her, Heather insists she has never harmed anyone. When the body of a second infant is found, Naomi has reason to champion Heather's innocence. Charter, however, accuses the young woman of murdering two newborns.

Here the novel shifts into high courtroom drama, pitting Charter, whose case leans heavily on coincidence and self-righteousness, against Heather's public defender, Judith Friedman. Like Naomi, Judith is a New Yorker and Jewish -- two traits that Goddard distrusts -- and the two women become close friends. Judith bluntly tells Naomi that she is fighting more for women's rights than for Heather; even Naomi, who has felt compelled "to speak for the one they had already condemned," doesn't much like this "sluggish, lackluster girl."

The account of Heather's trial is vividly realized, particularly Judith's masterful cross-examination of Heather's callous lover. Yet Korelitz is aiming for more than a suspenseful yarn; she seeks also to explore the big issues of religious faith, women's sexuality and the evaporation of the radical spirit of the '60s and '70s.

She is less successful handling these large themes, perhaps because the allegorical nature of many of her characters -- Charter, in particular, is strictly one-dimensional -- leaves little room for exploring the gray areas of human behavior. Both the trial and the novel come to satisfying ends, with twists that will surprise some readers but will have those who pick up on Korelitz's judiciously scattered clues nodding along. In all, "The Sabbathday River" is a splendid read, if no advertisement for life in the Granite State.

By Polly Morrice

Polly Morrice is a Houston writer.

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