Friday, June 06, 2008

Book in Review: Sweet Ruin

I'm getting excited. My trip to the week long Kenyon Review Writers Workshop happens in a little over a week. And today I got an email to let me know that my workshop instructor will be Brad Kessler. Yea! He was there last year (I was working with someone else) but I appreciated his personality and really liked his reading. I'm wondering if I can't get my hands on a copy of Birds in Fall and finish it before next Saturday. But until then I have a different book up for comment: Sweet Ruin by Cathi Hanauer.

I picked up Sweet Ruin on a whim. A whim that involved struggling with the fact that it had a "book club" label on the front and "suggested discussion questions" in the back. I love books and will gladly talk about them, but I'm not big on the whole notion of "book club approved" books. What that little sticker is telling me is that somewhere there's a committee of people who sat down and decided that should I have some spare time I should read this book to enrich my life. That this book is more important than others. That this book is the kind of book women of a certain affluence in America should be reading. And that just sticks in my craw.

Perhaps elevating these piddling committees to some sort of Orwellian ministry status is taking it a bit too far, but it's a comparison that I'd like marked in the books before I continue any farther.

The protagonist is a young creative woman in her early thirties. She epitomizes the strong young working woman who lived and breathed New York City in her twenties and now works part time from her home in the suburbs where she raises a five year old daughter.

[Yes, this is the book that sparked one of the infamous "discussions" with my father's girlfriend. The one where she cooed -- yes, cooed -- "that must be so hard for you to imagine." No, actually I have a great imagination. Funny that I get this reaction when I read a book about a woman who has a kid but not when I read The Diary of Anne Frank. I think living in a half attic while holding your breath hoping that the Nazi's won't come haul you away would perhaps be the harder thing to imagine. But I didn't struggle reading that one either. Good. Imagination.]

Once you get into the novel, you come to find out that the protagonist had two children not long ago but lost an infant son. At the beginning of the novel she's emerging from a period of depression surrounding his death which sparks an "awareness of nature" soliloquy. A tact that will be repeated every time the author begins a new "section" of the novel, and a sure sign for me to take a nap.

But once we got out of the woods (literally) we get into a really interesting inner conflict: her husband still has the high power job in the city, and she has ... one child that she takes care of, one child too few, one child that's off to school full time that fall. And the protagonist starts wondering about what she gave up and what she could still have. Thoughts that are further fueled by the arrival of the cute young art student moving in across the street. And so begins her flirtation with temptation and what could have been.

Not a bad summer read. It's somewhere in the area between post-chick lit, beach reading, and the commercial end of literary fiction. As per usual, the "book club" sticker comes to mean it deals with unearthing revelations about potential childhood trauma of a sexual nature. Apparently that kind of stuff makes book clubs go ape shit. Ever read an Oprah book? See my point? That content matter makes it a little dark for the beach but still light enough to eat with a summer salad.

Highly Recommended