The test of tolerance as town and gown divide

In a modern small town of lattes and Prozac, old feuds and longings fester... Dina Rabinovitch on a perfect summer saga
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The Independent Culture

The River King by Alice Hoffman (Chatto & Windus, £15.99, 352pp)

The River King by Alice Hoffman (Chatto & Windus, £15.99, 352pp)

Haddan is a town in Massachusetts with a long history. Its inhabitants rarely move away, and the old grievances stay put too. It's a small community, set on the river banks of the Haddan River, which overflows from time to time. The spring squalls are the worst, a taxidriver says, because nobody ever expects them. Silver trout, delectable when fried with shallots, amass.

The people are ingrown like a toe-nail. But there are two enclosed groupings in Haddan, for on the outskirts is the Haddan School, which services privileged kids from other cities. The local children, meanwhile, trek to the high school in Hamilton, a five-mile walk. The resentment causes "a small bump on the skin of ill-will ready to rupture at the slightest contact".

The River King is the George Clooney of summer reading: holidaying woman, this is the novel to pack. The language rewards, as the story engrosses. Take it away and read of those who live in one place their whole life.

This is not to say that Haddan is in a time warp. No, they have both lattes and Prozac. But what proof modern gadgets against ancient hatred?

This book is about that most primal of hatreds - fear of the outsider. Two of the students who come to Haddan School were never designed to fit in. The boy is first fêted, but then turned on, while the girl's alienness works in her favour, and she is dated by the best-looking jock.

It is also about three generations of women, and how they fare within communities. The first generation has Annie Jordan, the most beautiful girl in the village. Annie makes pets of unlucky swans. She is chosen as wife by Dr George Howe, esteemed headmaster of Haddan School, and briefly there is the possibility of school and village uniting. But Howe is not a good man. "At his very own wedding, Dr Howe had forgotten his hat, always the sign of a man who's bound to stray."

And so this generation also includes Helen Davis, who teaches at the school. "She fell in love with Dr Howe in a single afternoon, long before he'd ever called her by name". Davis is the unlucky one; she lives long enough to watch the next two generations come along.

Second generation is Betsy, a photographer who ends up living in Haddan by accident. And third generation is Carlin, the odd-girl-out student, who chooses Haddan, because home was worse. "Some people were simply born in the wrong place. The first thing such individuals searched for was a map and the second was a ticket out."

There are three generations of men, too. Howe the hatless; Abe, the upright policeman; and Gus, the ungainly student. Betsy and Carlin are women in Annie's mould, but they get more choices than Annie, "who hanged herself from the rafters one mild evening in March, only hours before wild iris began to appear in the woods".

There is murder, and the upright leave Haddan. Small communities provide poor shelter indeed for the good, and the vulnerable.