This review is part of a MotherTalk blog tour, and I received the book from the publisher to review.
Sweet Ruin: A Novel is the second novel written by columnist and essayist Cathi Hanauer. This book is written in the first person, the story of a woman and her family coming out of the “hibernation” of grief after the loss of their newborn son. It follows them through a little more than a year, and the highs, lows, and the every-day of their lives.
I’ve outed myself as a novel-addict in other posts, and it’s pretty clear from my extensive reading list that I love to read fiction that centers on women – be it literature, chick lit, young adult, or paranormal romance. Looking at the cover of Sweet Ruin, I was saving it to savor – from the cover and the description, I was really excited to read it.
However, I had trouble becoming engaged in the book. The first few chapters seemed overly descriptive – it was hard to get past the number of adjectives to start enjoying the story. The storyline is also a difficult one: As Elayna is starting to get back into life, her 6 year old daughter is saying things that raise questions of sexualabuse, and a husband who is working so much that the mother becomes very tempted by a handsome new, young neighbor. Novels with infidelity themes aren’t books I usually read, as they make me uncomfortable. And after a time spent teaching kids who had been sexually abused, pedophelia also raises my anxiety.
Part One of Sweet Ruin introduces us to all the main characters, and develops their personalities. Elayna’s relationship with her daughter, Hazel, is an incredibly resonating one. Ms. Hanauer has written a mother-daughter relationship that feels real. The mother is lost when her son, Oliver, dies, but she feels alive when Hazel is with her. Unlike the way parenthood is portrayed in most novels, Hazel is a real character and really a part of the story – not simply a plot device or a cardboard cut-out that is shuffled from sitter to sitter – Elayna also loves taking care of her nephew, too.
The love Elayna shows for her daughter kept me going through the book. Part Two shows the problems that happen in the family and the marriage, but you get carried along by the novel, because the characters are so well developed in Part 1. The richness and depth of all the characters keeps you from putting down the novel when it reaches a point that makes you uncomfortable. Several times I put it down for a moment, because I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what happened next. But then I saw that there was a Part 3, which I (correctly!) assumed would bring closure. Of course, with a book that has such well developed characters and relationships, nothing is tied up neatly, but the loose edges of the end of the novel are blurred, not ragged – you have a good sense of what will happen to all the characters after you leave them.
Sweet Ruin is a beautiful book overall. Parts of the beginning felt stilted, but once I became accustomed to Ms. Hanauer’s writing style, I fell in love with her characters. She has a wonderful flair for bringing characters to life – none of the characters are one-dimensional, they all have admirable traits and faults. Even during the portions of the book that touched hot buttons for me, I couldn’t stop reading – I needed to continue to visit with the characters. In fact, after closing the book, I wished I could go out for coffee with Elayna, and I know that her daughter Hazel would have a lot of fun with my daughters! I can see them in my mind’s eye, out for a walk.
I do recommend Sweet Ruin, but there will be people for whom it is not a good fit. If you give it a try, don’t stop after the first chapter – keep going and you’ll get caught up in these new friends.