Graphic, bold, riveting, unflinching, dark, difficult and lovely can all be used to describe Cynthia Bond’s debut novel Ruby. At its heart, it’s a love story – Ephram Jennings loves Ruby Bell and that’s all you really need to know. It’s a one-sided love, one which Ephram suffers for, but he’s not willing to compromise. He’s willing to withstand squalor and shunning for her, he would wait years for her. He does both. There’s no doubt this dark, haunting novel can be hard to process as Ruby grapples with the very act of living.
Beyond the love Ephram has for Ruby, the novel tells the story of racism, sexual abuse, and religious intolerance in Liberty, Texas during the 1960s. Ruby was born in Liberty, Texas at the wrong time to a seemingly cursed family. After escaping to New York, Ruby returns to east Texas a broken, crazed woman. Some say she deserves it, others pity the hand she’s been dealt, but there’s no doubt she’s the center of gossip and ridicule in small town Texas.
I find it difficult to discuss this multi-layered novel. When that happens, I often rely on others who can say it better than I ever could hope to – in this case, John Irving. I found this novel to be reminiscent of one of my favorite Irving sentiments: “Human beings are remarkable – at what we can learn to live with. If we couldn’t get strong from what we lose, and what we miss, and what we want and can’t have, then we couldn’t ever get strong enough, could we?”
Ultimately, Ruby is a grim, but beautiful story that will draw you in and tear you up. It is not a tale for the tender-hearted or for those who are easily saddened by the atrocities humans can inflict on each other. In an essay written by the author, Bond explains “My own history of abuse informed this novel, as well. I joined a support group very early on in my recovery and met an amazing woman who had survived the unthinkable. She had lived through some of the things that I write about in Ruby. Then, in completely disconnected instances, I heard similar stories from women who had never met my friend, sharing the same details, the exact same experiences. Somewhere along the way, working with at risk and homeless youth in Los Angeles for 15 years, living with my own abuse, and hearing stories of such pain and torment, I thought—If you can bear to have lived it, I can at least bear to listen. Ephram Jennings says that in some form to Ruby later in the novel. I asked that of myself while working on this book.” So if Bond can bear to write it, based on the experiences of people she’s met (as well as her own), then I can bear to read it. It was a beautiful, important experience (and very, very grim). 4/5, memorable. For a better expressed opinion than mine, check out the reviews on The Gilmore Guide to Books and The Daily Dosage. What what the last novel you found difficult to process?
(In the interest of full disclosure, I received a review copy of this novel in exchange for my honest opinion.)
Pair this novel with Angel Food Cake, read the story to find out why.