- Between Two Rivers
Nicholas Rinaldi's Between Two Rivers is a beautifully written and dense novel revolving around the condominium Echo Terrace in Manhattan. Throughout the pages we encounter the voices and lives of numerous tenants, their sum adding up to a much larger whole than their own individual lives and deaths.
Written in limited third-person, the narrative centers of consciousness switch from chapter to chapter, often seeming unrelated except by location. While the characters do share connections with each others' lives through mistresses, secrets, and causes, the disconnections are often what's most interesting: all those people in a confined space, much like Manhattan itself, so unknowing of each other's lives. The book spans from 1993 to 2001, and in those years, the generation below begins to usurp the generation before. Nieces replace Aunts in the condominiums, sons replace fathers in the active roles of life, a janitor gives birth to a child to replace the man who raped her and whom she killed, and in each one we see a circular pattern of giving and taking develop, made all the stronger for the structure of the book with narrators seemingly related only by place.
In the midst of it all is Farro Fescu, a concierge harkening back to a dying breed of concierge that no longer exists, that combines both servant and friend. He is not merely a doorman standing guard, but a window into each tenant's life; he knows if they prefer Aleve to aspirin, the sounds of their shoes, their careers, and darkest secrets. Through his intimate [End Page 198] knowledge of the tenants' lives, Fescu becomes a voice for all of them, seeing in each a piece of himself, and yet other pieces so separate, it's amazing they coexist. Rinaldi writes:
"Farro Fescu has been there, at Echo Terrace, from the start, when the building first opened, nine years ago. He knows the pace, the tempo, the rhythm, the vibrations in the lobby walls. . . . And there are times when he feels he knows so much about each of them that it seems he is inventing them, creating them out of whole cloth. The condominium, Echo Terrace, does not exist. He is making it up. . . . How to be sure that even he is real, that he and Echo Terrace, and West Street, and the island of Manhattan, and beyond that, the world itself, all of it, has a pulse, a heartbeat that can be measured and scanned, and the heart itself is genuine not just some shadowy image on an echocardiogram. How to know what is solid, what is real, what is mush, what is fog, what sinks, what floats, and where, where, is the cream that rises to the top?"
Without human connection, how do we know that anything exists?
This feeling of separation is both echoed and subverted throughout the entire novel along with the ability to change our lives, both in small and large ways. Dr. Tattafruge, one of the residents of Echo Terrace, is a plastic surgeon specializing in sex changes, giving his patients the true lives that they've only dreamed of. Maggie Sowle, a famous artist, is commissioned to create a quilt capturing America's twentieth century, and in addition to images of an entire country's past she includes the image of her husband Henry's hands. While she knows they'll be symbolized as "the hands of humankind," to her, they're merely her husband's, "more precious to her than any hands she had ever known."
This connection between public and private events and images is a central metaphor in the book, brought to the forefront most vividly by the World Trade Center which creates a shadow on the characters' lives both figuratively and literally, and that brings to mind images of change for the reader, both on an intimate level and in the consciousness of a country. Each mention of the Towers, no matter how banal, comes as a surprise on the page, for to most readers they no longer represent commerce and power, but destruction and ruin. In the first...