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East of the Mountains [Paperback]

David Guterson
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (190 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 21 2000 Vintage Contemporaries
Ben Givens is a retired heart surgeon who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Deciding to take charge of his own demise, Ben travels into the wild country of Washington state with his two dogs and his father's Winchester, to hunt one last time and then to end his life on his own terms. But, as with all quests, the Fates intervene. A car wreck introduces him to various helpers and hindrances, and gradually Ben undertakes a journey back through his own past. As he nears the apple-growing country in which he grew up, he recalls the signal events of his youth and manhood-especially his wartime experiences and his profound love for his wife of fifty years. Ben is transformed into an American Odysseus as he confronts the many sides of his own nature in a novel that radiates with the glories of the natural world and the mysterious permutations of the human heart.

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David Guterson's first novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, was a true ensemble piece, in which even a high-stakes murder trial seemed like a judgment passed on the community at large. In his eloquent second novel, however, the author swings dramatically in the opposite direction. East of the Mountains is the tale of a solitary, 73-year-old Seattle widower. A retired heart surgeon, Ben Givens is an old hand at turning isolation to his advantage, both professionally and personally: "When everything human was erased from existence except that narrow antiseptic window through which another's heart could be manipulated--few were as adroit as Dr. Givens."

Now, however, Ben has been dealt a problem entirely beyond his powers of manipulation: a diagnosis of terminal cancer. With just a few months to live, he sets out across the Cascades for a hunting trip, planning to take his own life once he reaches the high desert. A car crash en route puts an initial crimp in this suicide mission. But the ailing surgeon presses onward--and begins a simultaneous journey into the past. Between present-tense episodes, which demonstrate Ben's cranky commitment to his own extinction, we learn about his boyhood in Washington's apple country, his traumatic war experience in the Italian Alps, and the beginning of his vocation.

Guterson narrates the apple-scented idyll of Ben's childhood in a typically low-key manner--and orchards, of course, are seldom the stuff of melodrama. Still, many of his ambling sentences offer miniature lessons in patience and perception: "They rode back all day to the Columbia, traversed it on the Colockum Ferry, and at dusk came into their orchard tired, on empty stomachs, their hats tipped back, to walk the horses between the rows of trees in a silent kind of processional, and Aidan ran his hands over limbs as he passed them with his horse behind him, the limbs trembling in the wake of his passing, and on, then, to the barn." The wartime episodes, however, are less satisfactory. Clearly Guterson has done his research down to the last stray bullet, but there's a second-hand feeling to the material, which seems less a token of Ben's detachment than the author's.

There is, alas, an additional problem. Begin a story with a planned suicide, and there are exactly two possible outcomes. It would be unfair to reveal Ben's fate. But as the forces of life and death yank him one way, then another, Guterson tends to stack the deck--particularly during a bus ride toward the end of the novel, when Ben's fellow passengers appear to have wandered in from a Frank Capra film. Yet East of the Mountains remains a beautifully imagined work, in which the landscape reflects both Ben's desperation and his intermittent delight. And Guterson knows from the start what his protagonist learns in painful increments: that "a neat, uncomplicated end" doesn't exist on either side of the mountains. --James Marcus --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

A good and decent man's passage through life as reflected in his memories and his experiences on what he intends to be his last day on earth is the burden of Guterson's (Snow Falling on Cedars) deeply felt, honest and quietly powerful new novel. Dr. Ben Givens, a 73-year-old retired thoracic surgeon in Seattle, has terminal colon cancer, a fact that he has kept from his daughter and grandson. Widowed recently after a loving marriage, he decides to forgo the ordeal of dying in stages, and instead to commit suicide in what will look like an accident during a day of quail hunting in the apple-growing country where he was born. But fate interferes with Ben's plan. His van is wrecked when he runs off a slick road, and he is rescued in the first of several encounters that turn into a two-day ordeal. During the cold October night in the sagebrush desert, the narrative rises to a harrowing crescendo when Ben's two dogs are the victims of a marauding pack of Irish wolfhounds. With subtle symmetry, Guterson uses Ben's darkly picaresque misadventure to provide graceful segues into the events of his past. A series of poignant memories occur in flashback?Ben's mother's death; his tender courting of Rachel, who became his wife; his soul-lacerating experiences in combat in WWII and his life-defining epiphany at an army field hospital in Italy?which chart the growth of a man with a strong sense of humanity and responsibility and a steadfast work ethic. The novel begins slowly, and at first one fears that Guterson's attempt to establish a sense of place will result in a dense recital of geographical names. But his unsparingly direct, beautifully observed and meticulously detailed prose creates an almost palpable atmospheric background. At the end of his journey, Ben achieves an understanding about the meaning of life and the continuity of commitment. Wise and compassionate about the human predicament, Guterson's second novel confirms his talent as a writer who delves into life's moral complexities to arrive at existential truths. Agent, Georges Borchardt. 500,000 first printing; $500,000 ad/promo; Literary Guild main selection; author tour; rights sold to U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Holland, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark; simultaneous release by BDD audio. (Apr.) 1999.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Masterful tale of a life-changing journey Aug. 13 2003
By Nanakin
Format:Hardcover
I had never been to eastern Washington state -- until I read David Guterson's loving portrayal in this rich and understated novel of a sick old man trying to lose his life, and finding it in the process. Guterson's plain, beautiful prose in this book took me to that region of the U.S. His writing here reminded me of both Wallace Stegner and Willa Cather, both exemplars of loving and meticulous portrayals of the American west and its people.
The emotional descriptions are never overwrought, and because of that they are immensely affecting. Ben Givens is likable in spite of a stubborn thread. The flashback accounts of his halcyon youth on an apple farm are just gorgeous; you will smell the crisp apples hanging from the rows of trees and feel the love between young Ben and his brother, mother, and father. In Guterson's fictional world, husbands and wives love each other deeply and unwaveringly; children and elders operate from a platform of profound mutual respect and affection. What a pleasant change from much of today's ironic, cynical, nihilistic fiction about relationships!
I liked "Snow Falling..." very much, but I feel this book is the greater writerly achievement of the two. In my view, it vaults Guterson into the ranks of some of our finest regional and national fiction writers.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful book about life and compassion July 14 2003
Format:Hardcover
This is an excellent novel about a seventy-three year old widower who decides to take his life after learning he has terminal colon cancer to spare himself and his family the painful experience that is sure to come over the next few months. A retired surgeon, he plans to stage a gunshot accident while hunting for birds in the Yakima Valley which is "east of the mountains" from Seattle where he lives. He spends three days in the valley where he grew up as a boy during which he confronts other issues about life and death and reflects on some of the important events in his life while growing up. This is a thoughtful novel that speaks volumes regarding the value of life and how individuals affect the lives of others.
It is interesting to see how other people have reacted to this book in light of the success of "Snow Falling on Cedars." Second novels tend to be judged harshly, especially when people have expectations that the next book will somehow be the same as or a continuation of the first. "East of the Mountains" has a different premise and explores different issues than "Snow Falling on Cedars." Instead of dealing with issues of cultural expectations and community values, "East of the Mountains" is about personal fulfillment and the value of life. Ironically, despite the pallor of loss, it ultimately expresses more about hope than "Snow Falling on Cedars." Readers who can accept this book as its own work will find it to be a profound and carefully crafted story.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Another gift from Guterson June 5 2003
Format:Hardcover
It'd be hard to top Snow Falling on Cedars, and D. Guterson hasn't quite done it with East of the Mountains. But it's definitely a worthwhile read, a quiet exploration of the meaning of life set against the certainty of death, whether it comes naturally or by suicide, which is the crux of this book. At the beginning, the protagonist, Ben, a retired surgeon, has been diagnosed with cancer, knows it's terminal, and sets off toward his childhood home in the Cascade Mts for the purpose of committing suicide. Like most of us, he dreads a slow inevitable decline in which he becomes a burden to his family. As he moves forward toward what he expects will be his death, at the same time he moves back in time to his past. Like a film rolling backwards in a story that's moving forward, readers are treated to the history and analysis of his whole life, the choices he made, and how those choices continue to affect him. The odd people he meets along the way contribute to his saga with their own incomplete stories. He is yanked back and forth between life and death decisions, hard choices, philosophically faced, reasoned with, and decided upon.
Beautiful rhythm and flow to the quiet, low-keyed writing, as well.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Doctor Turned Pothead April 8 2003
Format:Hardcover
If this book were a news headline, I imagine it would be "Doctor Turned Pothead." It was most unbelievable to me that Ben Givens would smoke dope, hitchhike, & go to such extremes to kill himself. If he's going do suicide, why worry about whether his body will be discovered in a week or two weeks? This seemed contrived to launch us on the journey east of the mountains. I didn't relate to his internal struggle. Guterson's injects a string of characters that have little significance to Ben; so why should we care? Even at the end, he meets Bea who knew him as a boy and drives him home; so? At one point, I thought this would be a feel-good book where the doctor learns that even though he's struggling with cancer, he can still live each day and give to those around him. That point seemed to have eluded Ben. Instead, he returns home too sick to die at his own hand. The most interesting character was Rex the dog who is wild chasing the wolves and then struggles with his injuries. Perhaps if the story were told through the dog's point of view, it would have been more original. I enjoyed the ending more than the beginning. Overall, it didn't grab me. I thought the author had to write a book rather than had something to say. Taxi!
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars I love David Guterson's writing style
I love David Guterson's writing style...it is sort of quiet and subtle and sneaks up on you. i plan to get all his books eventually. very good book.
Published 2 months ago by Lisa Baltich
2.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful but Somewhat Dull
Guterson is certainly a wonderful wordsmith, and East of the Mountains is a perfect showcase for this talent. Unfortunately, I don't think he's a natural storyteller. Read more
Published on July 26 2011 by grapemanca
5.0 out of 5 stars I loved this book...
Written beautifully with such a life affirming message. I could see the main character so clearly and he haunts me still. I loved this one and highly recommend it.
Published on July 9 2004
4.0 out of 5 stars Better than Snow Falling on Cedars
I'm quite suprised by the reviews that rate this book a poor follow up to Snow Falling on Cedars. They are very different books, and East of the Mountains is intentionally more... Read more
Published on June 11 2004 by LAlovesdogs
2.0 out of 5 stars The Literary Talent is Obvious But No Story Here
The author of this book has wonderful literary talent. But unfortunately I found the work to be,if not downright pretentious, highly presumptuous. There was no story. Read more
Published on May 9 2004
3.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written, but tiresome
Guterson's skills as a writer are unquestionable, as was demonstrated in his first book. However, East of the Mountains is no Snow Falling on Cedars. Read more
Published on Sept. 3 2003 by rosiet33
1.0 out of 5 stars East of the Mountains
The premise of this novel seemed interesting and the author garnered a slew of accolades for Snow Falling on Cedars (though I haven't read that work). Read more
Published on July 17 2003
4.0 out of 5 stars So many feel they have so little to offer
This book was my introduction to the author. It had contrived situations but the message regards how we encapsulate our lives and then regret the emptiness of our existence. Read more
Published on July 8 2003 by UnkWot
2.0 out of 5 stars Not up to Snow
The Kirkus reviewer was wrong; many people have been disappointed by this novel, and I'm one of them. Read more
Published on March 7 2003 by Judith C. Kinney
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