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Rowing saga strives to stir but falls flat

POSTED: June 2, 2013 1:00 a.m.

I thought I would have little to identify with in this book, since its premise is based on competitive rowing, an activity I have neither participated in or ever harbored interest to watch. While Ron Irwin’s upcoming novel, “Flat Water Tuesday,” does spend a good amount of time detailing the rigors of training, mentally preparing and contending in the sport, it is more a story about a man coming to grips with his painful past, his turbulent present and the long-buried memories that inevitably rise back to the surface.

As a young teenager, Rob Carrey is accepted into Fenton, a prestigious prep school for rowing. He is a champion sculler — that is, he is the best at rowing solo. However, upon arriving at Fenton, he is expected to row on a team of the four best competitors in his class. Rob considers dropping out of the school, as he cannot acclimate himself to working with the other students, especially Connor Payne, the captain of the rowing team.

Gradually, Rob learns to become part of the team, but the more he comes to learn about his teammates, the more he is a witness to their, and his own, inner demons.

The story alternates between Rob’s Fenton years and his adulthood, when he is a filmmaker shooting a documentary in South Africa. He returns home upon receiving word that one of his Fenton teammates has died, and he has been invited to the funeral at the university. While home, Rob attempts to reconcile with his ex-lover, Carolyn, who is also his video editor, but soon he discovers that a broken past cannot be easily mended.

This novel reminded me of a couple of more famous narratives incorporating the “hardships of prep school” motif: “A Separate Peace” and “Catcher in the Rye” flashed in my mind at various points in the story. There is nothing particularly remarkable about this plot: Rob is your typical hotheaded boy experiencing his “coming of age” moment that will bring him into adulthood. Connor Payne — yes, the character who aggravates Rob literally has the word “pain” in his name — isn’t much more than the arrogant jock we always encounter in these stories, although he does have his own darkness to face and occasionally shows a pinch of likeability.

Rob’s two love interests, Carolyn and Ruth, don’t go much beyond being just that — in fact, one could switch the two characters’ roles and find little difference. The more interesting characters are shoved to the background and leave the readers wishing that they could learn more about them rather than our main protagonist.

What saves the novel are the moments, arguably too few, of genuinely tender writing from Irwin, mainly when he is capturing the essence of nature. I listened to the audio version of the novel, so some of it may be in part to the reader (Holter Graham), but one truly gets a clear visual of the autumn crispness, the serenity of the river and the simple beauty of the Fenton campus.

There is an eloquent passage near the end of the book, where the narrator is observing something we have all seen before, but describes it in such a manner it resonates, giving a sense of a unity between nature and our daily lives we often forget.

If you are interested in picking up “Flat Water Tuesday” when it is released this month, you may enjoy it for Irwin’s writing style and tone. But if you are searching for unique characters and an engrossing plot, you best keep rowing along to the next book on your list.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life.


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