Riven Rock book review

riven rock by t c boyle – book review

Riven Rock – overview

Riven Rock is historical fiction based on the lives of Katherine Dexter, a rich Boston socialite and Stanley McCormick, the mentally unstable son of a rich businessman and inventor. We follow the couple from their first meeting in the early years of the 20th century, through their courtship and marriage. As Stanley descends from occasional bouts of madness to needing full time care, Katherine maintains contact, and arranges the management of Stanley’s care whilst building a separate life for herself.

I found four interesting threads through the book: an insight into the lives of the rich and famous in the US in this period, an insight into the struggles, hopes and dreams of the poor in the US in the same period, the development of psychiatry and the treatment of the mentally ill, and relations between the sexes.

Lives of the rich and famous

We get an interesting insight into the lifestyles of rich white Americans during this era. Large estates, Ivy League education, servants, a maid to hand you a towel when you get out of the shower, croquet lawns, early motor cars. first class train travel and the occasional European trip. The eponymous 87 acre mission style estate, Riven Rock, home, or prison, to Stanley McCormick for over 40 years, is located in Montecito California, and we get a glimpse into the opening up of the West as the rich set up their residences in Santa Barbara and Montecito – the book made me want to visit Montecito, and to revisit Santa Barbara! Many of the ornate palaces the rich and famous built for themselves during this era are still standing, although alas only two seem to be open to visitors and it seems one of these only allows visits to the garden? I’m particularly interested in Las Tejas, modelled after the casino at 16th century Villa Farnese in Italy.

Going through some emotional trauma? No problem, take yourself off to the family chateau in Switerland! Katherine Dexter makes use of the Dexter chateau just outside Geneva, and I’m reminded of a scene in the Mary Shelley movie when, in an earlier time, Mary and Percy Shelley spend a summer with Lord Byron who has similarly taken refuge in a villa near Geneva.

Travel seems much more of an adventure in this era. The motor car is just getting established in the early years of the book, and Stanley McCormick is an enthusiast who gets a thrill out of driving himself rather than using the services of a chauffeur. The car is still very much a novelty, and the roads are rough, not yet tarmacked. First class train travel stands in sharp contrast to today’s train travel. O’Kane, the Irish head nurse observes that ’the food was good, the best he’d ever had, six courses for dinner with consommé to start and a selection of cheeses before the dessert and coffee, real first-class and no limit to the luxury of it.’

Struggles, hopes and dreams of the poor

And then in sharp contrast, Riven Rock shows us life as it is experienced by the rest of society, through the eyes of Stanley McCormick’s head nurse, Eddie O’Kane. Eddie is an alcoholic who chases sex without regard for relationships. He stays in his dead-end job looking after his near catatonic employer through a sense of loyalty, but also a hope of some (non-contractual) reward at the end, should Stanley make a recovery.




For Eddie, the lifestyle and opportunities offered by a move to the West stand in sharp contrast to his life on the east coast. ‘It wasn’t dark in California, and it didn’t snow, and there was no slush and drizzle and there were no frozen clods of horse manure in the streets and life there didn’t grind you down till you barely knew you were alive. A single acre of oranges could make a man comfortable – oranges that practically grew by themselves, without even the rumor of work… and ten acres could make a man rich. There was gold. There was oil. There was the Pacific. There was sun.’
O’Kane dreams of getting rich, and is manipulated into investing into an orange grove, which fails. His money is returned with a small profit however as the value of the land has appreciated in the meantime, and he is then encouraged to invest his now returned life savings into the stock market just before it’s crash.

Despite O’Kane’s father only having arrived in the US thirty years before, Eddie has a racist disrespect for later and darker skinned immigrants, He feels the class difference between himself and Stanley’s wife Katherine: ’She was a society lady… cold as a walking corpse, all fur, feathers and stone.’ ‘O’Kane wasn’t part of society. …He wasn’t even part of the society that aspired to be part of society. He was a working man, son of a working man, grandson of a working man, and on and on all the way back to the apes – or Adam and Eve, whichever you believed in.’

Misogyny and relations between the sexes

This is an era when marriage was the expected and often enforced outcome of casual sex. Both rich and poor in the book feel this pressure – Stanley McCormick rather ludicrously after sleeping with a prostitute in Paris. Eddie O’Kane finds himself married to Rosaleen, a woman he has no respect for, after getting her pregnant, and his rival for the sexual attentions of the sexy Italian Giovannella is forced to marry her by her family.

Men in the Italian community the services the Riven Rock estate act as protectors of their women ‘It was just the way the Italians were when it came to their women – especially their daughters. They were wary of every male between the ages of eleven and eighty, unless he was a priest, and no matter how drunk they were… they always had one eye open, watching, waiting, ready to pounce.’

Both of the main male protagonists in the book are violent towards women. Stanley McCormick attacks women almost whenever the opportunity arises, after his schizophrenia starts to take hold, and Eddie O’Kane on occasion hits his wife Rosaleen.

Men certainly don’t come out of this book smelling of roses! Katherine has a low opinion of the men in her life: ‘Men had failed her in more ways than she could count – some actively with malice aforethought, others passively, through no fault of their own. They’d let her down when she needed them, broken her heart, stood in her way, barred the door and thrown up the barricades…. (if she were to generalise) she would find the average man to be false, petty, childish and smug..’

Being thus let down by men, and having the freedom that time and money allow, Katherine devotes herself to female causes. She gets involved in the suffrage movement, and later in promoting birth control. ‘And why birth control? Because without it a woman was a chattel and nothing more, a breeder, a prize mare or sow, and why educate a sow? Why hire one? Why teach her science and maths and the workings of the world? Pregnant and bloated every year of her life from sixteen to forty and beyond, every woman was handcuffed by her husband’s sexual urges, and where was the hope of advancement in that?’ On Stanley’s death, Katherine inherited his considerable fortune and invested in it, amongst other things Dr Gregory Pincus, the pioneer of the birth control pill. Katherine’s investment, in 1953, amounted to a 50-fold increase in the money dedicated to this research.

Denied a sexual relationship with her husband, and disillusioned with men, Katherine starts to live in an almost entirely female world. Does she have a lesbian relationship with her close friend? How many male and female same sex relations are a natural extension of disillusionment with the opposite sex, and preference for the company of your own?

Early psychiatry

Stanley McCormick is diagnosed with schizophrenia during the time that psychiatry is a developing field. During his 40 plus years at Riven Rock – so named in a nod to schizophrenia -‘Schizo’ a splitting, and ‘Phrenia’ of the mind. A schizophrenic… has been split down the middle by his illness.’ Riven Rock is a landmark on the grounds of the mansion where a rock has been split in two by a tree growing through it – his doctors try a number of different approaches to his treatment.

The first, Dr Hamilton, sets up a small zoo in the grounds of Riven Rock to study hominoids – understanding their sexual behaviour, he believes, might provide insights into human sexual problems. ‘I truly do expect that my intensive study of the lower primates will lead to any number of breakthroughs in human behaviour, particularly with regard to sexual tendencies.’ ‘Sex is the root and cause of every human activity… from getting up in the morning and going to work to conquering nations, inventing the lightbulb, buying a new coat, putting meat on the table and looking at every woman that passes by as a potential mate. Sex is the be-all and end-all, our raison d’etre, the life force that will not be denied’

The second psychiatrist Dr Brush briefly tries talking treatment – ‘In… the summer and fall of 1916 the talking cue was considered little more than a novelty, a sort of glorified parlour game for the rich and idle, like dream analysis or hypnosis, and few psychiatrists had taken the lead of Dr Freud in applying it to their severely disturbed patients. Like most people, O’Kane was deeply skeptical – how could you talk a raving lunatic out of drinking his own urine or stabbing his invalid grandmother a hundred times with a cocktail fork?’

And the third, Freudian Dr Kempf believes in more active treatment – ‘Treatment. That’s what’s missing. The patient has had all the finest minds here to examine him and diagnose his condition… but his treatment has been almost purely custodial.’ He needs intensive daily sessions. inspired by Freud’s psychoanalysis again. ‘it may seem as the patient… is becoming yet more disturbed before he begins to improve, deep fears and anxieties, sexual matters, the whole construct of his personality. We’re going to open up all his old festering wounds and we’re going to sew them up and bandage them right.’

And a reflection…

At one point Eddie O’Kane observes that Stanley McCormick is ‘One of the richest men in the world, and he doesn’t even know it’. What use is money if you can’t enjoy it? Are not all of the people alive and fully conscious today in some sense better off than those that have died or are mentally unaware, regardless of the richness of their previous lives?

Review of Riven Rock

I thoroughly enjoyed Riven Rock. It was a well-written easy read, with an entertaining storyline, and addressed some interesting issues as well as painting a picture of the migration of the American rich to California. 9/10 from me.

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