Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Book review: Sweet Ruin

Today, I'm hosting a stop on MotherTalk's blog book tour for Cathi Hanauer's Sweet Ruin. (Disclosure: this means I get a free copy of the book and a small honourarium from MotherTalk.)

This was almost a 10-pages-in book review, because coming into the weekend I just wasn't sure I'd be able to finish it in time for my date on the bloggy book tour today. I have to admit, I was biased against the book as soon as it arrived. With it's girly pink cover and saucily bared shoulder, this book screamed chick lit to me and I've never been able to warm up to chick lit. More accurately, I haven't actually read any chick-lit, ever. Couldn't bring myself to peruse Sophie Kinsella, or pick up a Helen Fielding. The closest I've come is Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum, and I really don't think you can call a book about a bounty hunter chick lit, can you?

Anyway, all that to say that I did in fact judge this book by its cover. Even when I started reading it, I found it hard to warm up to the protagonist. Elayna Leopold is a 35-year-old wealthy subarban mother to six-year-old Hazel, and as the book opens she is recovering from a two-year depression following the loss of her newborn son, Oliver. After his death, she finds she and her husband Paul are simply going through the motions of their former life, hollow and bereft. Strike two against this book. When I signed on to the MotherTalk book tour, I didn't even know I was pregnant, and I almost stopped reading a few times last week just because I didn't want to think about healthy pregnancies that end in neonatal death. Kind of interferes with my new no-worries attitude, ya know?

But, I kept reading. I'm glad I did. About half way through the book, something hooked me deeply and completely, and I tore through the rest of the pages with breathless curiousity. The story examines Elayna's slow ascent from depression after the crushing loss of her son, and considers the eternal question of where the wife and mother ends and the woman begins. When she falls in lust for Kevin, the gorgeous 22-year-old artist across the street, she finds herself awakened and invigorated for the first time in years... and can I just take a moment here to say holy hell, does Hanauer ever know how to make a scene sizzle! Her descriptions of the magnetism of lust are evocative and breathtaking - literally.

Even though I never did warm up to Elayna's complex character - and I admit that a lot of that is simply judgementalism on my part, as I could neither agree with nor understand many of the larger and smaller choices Elayna made - I do appreciate Hanauer's impressive ability to flesh out a character. By far, the most interesting character in the book is Elayna's six-year-old daughter Hazel, a red-haired bundle of fiery energy and attitude perched precariously between being mommy's little girl and a preteen diva.

I found this book both compelling and hard to read. Hanauer is a good storyteller with a keen eye for detail and dialogue, and once the story starts moving it accelerates with the inevitability of a train wreck. You can see it coming, but you can't look away. But that's not to say that I didn't enjoy the ride - I just watched cringing, through splayed fingers, hoping that in the end at least the damage would be minimal. I found myself at times completely wrapped up in the story, my own guilt at hiding upstairs in stolen moments to read a few pages woven seamlessly into Elayna's guilt at her more dangerous choices. Mommy-guilt has more facets than I ever realized!

In addition to the story itself, this book had a few interesting features that I particularly liked. There were a handful of book club questions at the end, and an interview with the author that you can read on the Simon & Schuster Web site - but if you want to read the book, I'd wait and read them afterwards. It was satisfying to finish the book and then read the additional material with the story fresh in my mind, and I've always been interested in process when it comes to writing.

In the end, Sweet Ruin stayed just far enough on the literary side of chick lit to win my approval. While it had its racy and titillating moments, the depth of the characters and the complexity of the relationships was enough to both engage and satisfy me. I'd recommend it as an ideal summer beach book.

What are you reading this summer?