About The Book

“One of the most pleasurable and satisfying new books I've read in a long time. Setterfield is a master storyteller...swift and entrancing, profound and beautiful.” —Madeline Miller, internationally bestselling author of Circe and The Song of Achilles

“A beguiling tale, full of twists and turns like the river at its heart, and just as rich and intriguing.” —M.L. Stedman, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Light Between Oceans

“This is magical, bewitching storytelling...High prose expressed with rare clarity, story for the unashamed sake of story, a kind of moral dreaminess…well, the list continues to grow.”—Jim Crace, National Book Critics Circle winner and author of Being Dead and Harvest

From the instant #1 New York Times bestselling author of the “eerie and fascinating” (USA TODAY) The Thirteenth Tale comes a richly imagined, powerful new novel about the wrenching disappearance of three little girls and the wide-reaching effect it has on their small town.

On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the river Thames, an extraordinary event takes place. The regulars are telling stories to while away the dark hours, when the door bursts open on a grievously wounded stranger. In his arms is the lifeless body of a small child. Hours later, the girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Is it magic? Or can science provide an explanation? These questions have many answers, some of them quite dark indeed.

Those who dwell on the river bank apply all their ingenuity to solving the puzzle of the girl who died and lived again, yet as the days pass the mystery only deepens. The child herself is mute and unable to answer the essential questions: Who is she? Where did she come from? And to whom does she belong? But answers proliferate nonetheless.

Three families are keen to claim her. A wealthy young mother knows the girl is her kidnapped daughter, missing for two years. A farming family reeling from the discovery of their son’s secret liaison, stand ready to welcome their granddaughter. The parson’s housekeeper, humble and isolated, sees in the child the image of her younger sister. But the return of a lost child is not without complications and no matter how heartbreaking the past losses, no matter how precious the child herself, this girl cannot be everyone’s. Each family has mysteries of its own, and many secrets must be revealed before the girl’s identity can be known.

Once Upon a River is a glorious tapestry of a book that combines folklore and science, magic and myth. Suspenseful, romantic, and richly atmospheric, the beginning of this novel will sweep you away on a powerful current of storytelling, transporting you through worlds both real and imagined, to the triumphant conclusion whose depths will continue to give up their treasures long after the last page is turned.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Once Upon a River includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

On a dark midwinter’s night in an ancient inn on the Thames, the regulars are entertaining one another by telling stories. The night is interrupted when the door bursts open on an injured stranger carrying the drowned corpse of a little child.

Hours later the dead girl opens her eyes and lives again. In the face of this event, the witnesses attempt to explain the impossible in a great outburst of storytelling. Was it a miracle? Is it magic? Or could there be a scientific explanation for the girl who died and lived again?

The mystery deepens. Where did the child come from, and where does she belong? Who is she? Those who dwell on the riverbank grow increasingly fascinated by the mystery child, and the fates of three families in particular are connected by the mystery that began at the Swan on that winter’s night.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. The Swan Inn, Buscot Lodge, and the towns and villages along the river Thames create a very specific atmosphere for the story that unfolds. What role does the Swan itself play? Could this story have taken place anywhere else?

2. To judge by such details as photography and transport as described in the novel, the events appear to be set in the 1870s or thereabouts. Could the novel have been set at another time in history? What would have had to be different if the author had chosen another period?

3. What is the significance of the river?

4. By the time Vaughan had written a concise two-page account of Amelia’s kidnapping to his father in New Zealand, “the horror of it was quite excised.” What effect does the act of storytelling have on Vaughan? What about the other characters?

5. A wedge is driven between the Vaughans as they struggle to come to terms with the loss of Amelia. In the end, what brings them together? How?

6. How does Robert Armstrong, raised outside family life in circumstances of financially cushioned neglect, turn out to be such a good man?

7. “Sometimes I think there is nothing more a man can do. A child is not an empty vessel, Fleet, to be formed in whatever way the parent thinks fit. They are born with their own hearts and they cannot be made otherwise, no matter what love a man lavishes on them.” Do you agree with Armstrong’s lament at the end of the book? Is it possible if he had been a different kind of father things might have turned out differently for Robin?

8. Is Lily White responsible for her actions?

9. Consider the importance of family in the novel. What does it mean to Robert Armstrong? What does family mean to Daunt and Rita? And Victor? What about Lily?

10. It’s easy to get carried away talking about the key families in the plot, the Vaughans, the Armstrongs, and Lily and her brother, but what about the family at the inn? What important functions do they perform? And what do the drinkers—largely unnamed—add?

11. Storytelling is central to Once Upon a River. The story of Quietly the ferryman is an invention of the author, but it contains many elements from traditional or mythological tales. Does it remind you of any other stories in particular?

12. How many types or styles of story are told in Once Upon a River? Be as wide in your interpretation of “story” as you like!

13. Folk beliefs are still alive on the riverbank—changelings, witches, and dragons are all still real to some, and the Armstrongs believe Bess has a Seeing eye. What are the real-life consequences of these stories? Which characters have faith in these stories, and which do not? How does it affect their actions?

14. In the context of women’s lives in the nineteenth century, what do you make of Rita’s reluctance to marry? What brings her to reconsider?

15. Is the fortune-telling pig mere light relief or something more?

16. The identity of the girl is one of the driving mysteries of Once Upon a River. What were your early thoughts about who she really was, and did they alter as the story developed? What did you think of the way this question was resolved at the end?

17. The ending elaborates on the “return to life” of children apparently drowned. Did this come as a surprise to you?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. The art of oral storytelling is at the heart of Once Upon a River. It used to be central in every human society, but with the advent of literacy, and then TV and cinema, it has become rare to gather to listen to someone tell a story from memory. How about resurrecting the art by devoting part of a book club meeting to telling stories aloud?

2. Man is said to be the storytelling ape. Stories are the way people make sense of the world and their place in it. Are there stories (family stories or personal ones) that have shaped you and your sense of the world?

3. Diane Setterfield’s book The Thirteenth Tale was made into a BBC film starring Vanessa Redgrave, and Once Upon a River is to be a television series. Whom would you cast to bring the mysterious events of the Swan in Once Upon a River to life? Share your casting picks for Margot, Joe, Jonathan, Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong, Mr. and Mrs. Vaughan, Rita, Daunt, Lily White, Victor, and the others with your book club.

4. Many of the settings in the book are based on real places that stand today in England: Ye Olde Swan, still a working pub; Buscot House (the model for Buscot Lodge), now owned by the National Trust and open for visits; and Kelmscott Manor, a grand house also open to visitors, are all situated along the Thames in Oxfordshire. Should you be so lucky to go, start planning your trip at www.experienceoxfordshire.org. And if you can’t go in person, how about a virtual trip down the Thames at www.thames.me.uk?

5. Learn more about author Diane Setterfield by visiting her website at www.dianesetterfield.com, or following her on Facebook.

About The Author

Photograph by Susie Barker, © Diane Setterfield

Diane Setterfield is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Thirteenth Tale, and a former academic, specializing in twentieth-century French literature, particularly the works of Andre Gide. She lives in Oxford, England.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books (December 2018)
  • Length: 480 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501190230

Raves and Reviews

“I was completely spellbound by this book. Numerous strands of the same story are skillfully woven into a magical web from which I, as a reader, had no desire to escape. Setterfield’s prose is beautiful, dark and eerily atmospheric, and her rich cast of characters convincingly illustrate the best and worst of humanity. Utterly brilliant!” 

– Ruth Hogan, internationally bestselling author of THE KEEPER OF LOST THINGS and THE WISDOM OF SALLY RED SHOES

Once Upon a River is a delight, just marvelous. I devoured it in gulps.”

– Jo Baker, internationally bestselling author of LONGBOURN

Once Upon A River succeeds in doing what you hope every book will do - pull you in from the first page, hold you captive in the middle, then leave you satisfied and thoughtful at the end. I loved it.”

– Renee Knight, critically-acclaimed author of DISCLAIMER

"Diane Setterfield has created a true reading experience. Once Upon a River is the story of three missing girls and three desperate families all set against the Thames and woven together with magic, mystery, and mayhem. It is beautiful and heartbreaking and altogether wondrous. Simply put, it is a joy to read."

– Ariel Lawhon, author of I WAS ANASTASIA

“Setterfield fills this richly layered plot with a fascinating cast of memorable characters who weave in and out of each other's lives.”

– Booklist

"The heart of the story are the relationships that twist and turn, as if they also follow the river."

– Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Setterfield masterfully assembles an ensemble of wounded, vulnerable characters who, nevertheless, live by the slimmest margins of hope--hope that springs from family, from the search for meaning, from people's decency to strangers, from the belief that truth heals and sets one free . . . Celebrates the timeless secrets of life, death and imagination--and the enduring power of words. Fans, rejoice!"

– Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"This probing inquiry into human nature is also spooky fun."

– Vulture, "6 New Books You Should Read This December"

"This enchanting book from the author of The Thirteenth Tale is filled with folklore, romance, suspense."

– Bustle, "The 8 Best Fiction Books Coming Out In December 2018"

"A mosaic of modern folklore."

– InStyle

"The best-selling author of The Thirteenth Tale weaves a taut story."

– CBS Watch Magazine

"A magical, lyrical tale, filled with quests and questions."

– The BBC

*15 Books That Make Perfect Holiday Gifts for the Whole Family*

– Parade

"Once Upon a River will sweep you into its world, leaving you breathless as you turn the book’s final pages."

– Get Lit

"A magical midwinter tale."

– Literary Hub

"Diane Setterfield weaves a beautiful, suspenseful mystery . . . will keep you engrossed until the very last page."

– PopSugar

"Setterfield’s prose feels lifted from another era, a gothic lyricism resembling old classics like Jane Eyre."

– Entertainment Weekly

"Utterly enthralling."

– New York Journal of Books

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