Book Review: Drowning Ruth

Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz

I received this book at a white-elephantesque book exchange Ben’s family has started doing for the holidays. As a new tradition, it’s suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. It may be about getting rid of books you’d rather not have company see in your house, but it also might be about sharing books that you think people might like. Currently, it’s kind of both.

First of all, I’ve always associated the “Oprah’s Book Club” seal with anti-feminist, melodramatic housewife schlock that a reader of my social and intellectual standing couldn’t possibly enjoy, or at least couldn’t possibly enjoy in public. Unlike my secret, shameful love for murder mysteries, I have no affection whatsoever for womanly family dramas. So I was interested to see if I would even finish the book.

Maybe it’s because I had such low expectations when I started reading “Drowning Ruth,” or maybe it’s because I was on a family vacation with a family whose main pastime is reading, but I cut though this book in a matter of days. Every time I would start to get bored with the characters, or the scene, someone would appear or something would change that would pull me back in. This book is a page-turner without question.

Even before I learned that this was a first novel, I could tell from the almost mechanical way in which Schwarz works her transitions. In my experience, first novels universally carry this trait, and it’s almost a requirement for a freshman novelist to have difficulty constructing transitions. Though this book carries a lot of them, I felt that rather than clunking, the multiple transitions in the novel took on a pleasant clicking quality, like a familiar kitchen clock. Schwarz moves back and forth in time, as well as back and forth between characters–mostly Ruth and her aunt Amanda. Sometimes the narrative is first-person and sometimes it is third. I know some people take issue with this sort of voice-changing, but I never have. I felt that it was helpful in showing detail and in setting the scene.

One thing that the first person sections could have done, but didn’t, was bring the reader to a greater knowledge of Ruth and Amanda as people. Instead they remain poorly developed cut-outs on and around which the complicated plot hangs and gathers. The characters in “Drowning Ruth” do and say things so that the story can move forward, but I had a hard time figuring out what, if any, consequences they suffered for their actions. Both Amanda and Ruth experience some fairly damaging psychological trauma, but they both seem fine when the crisis is over, even if it lasted a year or more. When Schwarz needs them back in good form they pop up like daisys, right as rain and ready to behave normally–or at least not insanely–once again.

The real gem in “Drowning Ruth” is the plot, and the circuitous process by which it is revealed. We know from the first chapter that Ruth’s mother has drowned and that the only other people there were Amanda and Ruth as a toddler. What you spend the rest of the book figuring out are the exact circumstances of that death, and why Amanda has kept so many secrets for so many years.

Towards the end I started to get frustrated with the multiple twists and turns in the story line, but by that time I was in too deep and I wasn’t putting that book down, no matter how obnoxious it got. People who were invested in the picture of dysfunction and middle-class suffering that Schwarz was painting for most of the novel might be annoyed at the way she chose to end it, but I found the ending to be redemptive and life-affirming. It felt tacked on and falsely upbeat, but to be honest, after so many pages of downtrodden, unloved children being subjected to tragedy after tragedy, the tacky happy ending was a boon.

If you like kitchen table melodramas, then this is the book for you. It will keep you interested page after page from first to last. If you feel the need for literature, if you consider yourself high-brow or intellectual, this is not the book for you. But what it lacks in finesse, it makes up for in movement. If you want an easy read that you can blow through in a couple of winter days, this is certainly a book to add to your cold weather stack.