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East of the Mountains [Paperback]

David Guterson
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (189 customer reviews)

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Paperback, March 21 2000 --  
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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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From Amazon

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
2.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful but Somewhat Dull July 26 2011
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.

Like many novels with literary sensibilities, we witness a retelling of the central character's life, and we discover those pivotal moments that define the character's personality. We are also treated to a beautiful description of Washington State. But we see a much thinner plot than Snow Falling on Cedars. While the latter has a serviceable mystery and a large degree of historical tension to sustain the plot, I find that East of the Mountains really lacks a satisfying conflict to propel the story forward. A man, dying of cancer, meets a few interesting (and life affirming?) characters and then decides he loves life too much to commit suicide... Call me crazy, but it neither grabs nor holds my interest.

I plowed through right to the end, and was relieved that the novel is a fairly quick read, but I'm afraid that ineffable quality of an engaging narrative just isn't evident in this book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars I loved this book... July 9 2004
By A Customer
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.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Better than Snow Falling on Cedars June 11 2004
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 focused on an internal journey of an individual man. If you understand that going in, the book completely lives up to what we expect from Guterson's writing.
It does lack the intricate weaving of multiple characters and storylines of Snow Falling on Cedars, but I really enjoyed the attention Guterson gives to Ben's character development. And no one has ever captured the essence of Eastern Washington like this author has--having lived there for 5 years (now in Seattle, much like the lead character), his visual portaits of the land are both accurate and stunning.
If you appreciate understanding what motivates characters, and enjoy rich, descriptive detail of landscapes, you will like this book.
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2.0 out of 5 stars The Literary Talent is Obvious But No Story Here May 10 2004
By A Customer
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. The events were episodic, predictable and boring; points to be made by the author masquerading as plot. One cliche after another. Snow Falling on Cedars was much better but even those characters never really breathed life either. All the characters this author creates seem to have life happen in their close vicinity rather than that they lived.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written, but tiresome Sept. 3 2003
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. The writing is there, which kept me reading, but the plot is lacking. The story of a dying man on a journey toward death who encounters individuals who, *surprise*, each represent a little piece of himself was predictable and uninteresting.
One of the best aspects of Cedars was Guterson's character development and the author's subtle intertwining of those characters. This is not the case in his second book, as each character appears for only a few pages. I found myself much more interested in the migrant workers, the vagabond, and the kids in the VW bus than in the main character.
As a previous reviewer pointed out, it does feel as if Guterson rushed on this one. It's pretty good, but certainly not great.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Masterful tale of a life-changing journey Aug. 13 2003
By Nanakin
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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1.0 out of 5 stars East of the Mountains July 17 2003
By A Customer
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). Based on the above I thought I'd give this a try. Unfortunately I found it a poor effort. The writing is uninspiring and the plot unimaginative. If Cedars was as good as the ratings indicate, Guterson either rushed this, or resurrected something he'd written before he developed his talent and had wisely stored away on a closet shelf, forgotten. With his Cedars' success, he pulled it out to foist on an unsuspecting public. Either that, or he and his publisher mimiced his East of the Mountains' character, Ben Givens, and were smoking dupe. I made it through 200 pages and skimmed the rest. Take my advice and skip the whole thing.
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