Elizabeth Royte’s new book, Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It, is a frank reminder of just how ubiquitous bottled water — and the politics that surround its production and use — has become. At times that reminder comes at the cost of her prose, which can be overly dense, as Royte tries to mash historical timelines into narrative journalism. Still, the book succeeds at leaving an anxious aftertaste, one that calls on its readers to be better-informed water drinkers.
Bottlemania (Bloomsbury USA) follows the formula of other single-topic in-depth explorations such as Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History (Penguin, 2003) and Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (Penguin, 1998), or Jack Turner’s Spice: The History of Temptation (Vintage, 2005). The difference is, as much as our lives would be a bit less flavorful without items like cod and pepper, they would be flat-out insupportable without water. And that’s why the collision of business, ethical, and gastronomical interests is particularly explosive when it comes to H2O.
Royte uses a specific story — and it just happens to be a Maine-based tale with which locals will be quite familiar — to survey all these issues from both historical and current perspectives. The ongoing conflict between the town of Fryeburg and the Poland Spring company, documented in these pages and elsewhere, is Royte’s primary narrative, and a microcosm for the world’s water woes.
“The story of [Poland Spring parent company] Nestle in Fryeburg is, in its own weird way, the story of globalization,” Royte writes, “and what this town learns about water’s ownership and control will matter to all of as water scarcity...begins to hit home.” (191)
Yet the problem, for Royte (an author and journalist who’s also written for the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, and National Geographic) and for the reading public, is that those lessons remain hazy. It’s not Royte’s fault that there is so much confusion — in the short term, about what bottled water companies are actually doing to procure their product, and in the long term, about what effect those practices will have on local ecosystems. But her story still suffers occasionally from loose ends, insufficient explanations, and unanswered questions. There’s also the matter of characters —although Royte writes about a thing (water), she needs to connect her story to people. And while some people play leading roles in the Fryeburg-Poland Spring dispute, their characters are unsatisfactorily fleshed out.
It’s undoubtable that Bottlemania will be known as the first mainstream primer for burgeoning bottled-water wars, and with good reason. Royte spins a good yarn, throws in tons of interesting trivia, and ultimately, makes a solid case for sticking with tap water. But the floodgates of this story are only now breaking open.
Elizabeth Royte | Wednesday, September 17 @ 7 pm | at One Longfellow Square, Portland |$5 | 207.774.1044 | rabelaisbooks.com