This week brought the first in-person book club gathering since our initial session all the way back in that previous era, known as February. Abiding by the amorphous government guidelines to the best of my ability, I decked out the little courtyard in front of my flat (see also: a glorified parking space), creating my own version of the al fresco dining experiences that are popping up like crocuses in springtime all over London’s lonely streets.
Sadly, we’ve said goodbye to one member of the group who could no longer commit, while another member had to dial in from quarantine; such are the times. I was so excited to see the remaining three IRL that it didn’t matter at all that most of us had not come to rave about the book. In fact, it wasn’t until we were halfway through eating dinner that we managed to steer the conversation onto its intended course. As usual, all of us had raced through it with the rapidity of a bunch of people with little else to do, but the gripping nature of the novel can also take some credit for this.
The prose is engaging and keeps the reader guessing until the last paragraph. We were all surprised by the pacing and moments of unexpected drama, given that the story takes place at the close of World War I in rural Wisconsin and at first glance has all the makings of a slow-moving, navel-gazing tome. It is narrated by awkward Amanda, with unknowable levels of reliability and minimal levels of likeability, with the incremental unravelling of the mysteries of her life on the family farm, the death of her sister and her co-dependent relationship with her niece, Ruth, whose point of view we are also privy to.
Perhaps it was because we had just read another book with a spikey, psychotic middle-aged female protagonist, but the first (and only) thing we all agreed on, was that we’ve reached our collective limit in reading gratuitously deranged and unpleasant female characters with very little justification or explanation for why they behave the way they do. Sure, we’re glad the commercial publishing world has finally managed to push past the rule of female characters having to simply be ‘likeable’, but it’s frustrating that in a lot of cases, they have to fall into one category or the other, with little thought for nuance or the possibility that a character, like any flawed human, could be swimming somewhere in the middle, or, god forbid, wallowing in both simultaneously.
Having said that, I very much enjoyed the thriller element of this book. As with our previous selection, it’s not something I would have picked up otherwise. The morbid first sentence did make me a bit apprehensive but it picked up the pace almost immediately. Frequently ending a chapter with a revelation that compels the reader to carry on to the next is a skill I appreciate all the more now that my brain has been trained to binge-watch episodes of TV drama on Netflix. It also explains why the book was a number one international bestseller, although Oprah may also have had something to do with that, as it was selected for her book club the year it was published (2000).
There is plenty of evocative imagery to enjoy. The relationships of the women are reflected in the nature that surrounds them, complicated exquisiteness and harshness alike. But my fellow club members did not, as it turned out, see eye to eye with Oprah on the rest. There was a general consensus that Amanda’s story lacked any sort of arc and as a protagonist, there was a frustrating lack of growth or change, even from her flashbacks as a small girl. Other more interesting characters were given tantalisingly little development. I couldn’t argue with the others’ logic, and although I mostly agreed, these weren’t as big problems for me as they normally would be. I spent quite a lot of the time reading with my screenwriter hat on and envisaging an ambitious shoot of an adaptation in the wilds of wintery Wisconsin. There was a lot of hype surrounding the book when it was first released and the film rights were quickly snapped up by Miramax with well-known (now deceased) director, Wes Craven, attached. The classic 90s horror, Scream, is among his credits; a favourite in our house because it was the first 18 rated film we managed to illicitly record on VHS, adverts and all. I imagine the Drowning Ruth rights must still be tangled up somewhere in the US, as a movie is yet to be made. If anyone has any leads…
It appears that making the film version in my head served to distract me from the issues the others couldn’t get past. There were a couple of significant threads that petered out towards the end, including the unsatisfying fates of two key characters. I liked the old-fashioned tone of the text because it was balanced out by the faster paced twists and turns of the plot but my fellow readers found it overwrought and indulgent in places, and as our discussion flowed their vehemence won me (and no doubt my next door neighbours, whose window was wide open) round in the end. In a similar vein to Lullaby, we’d recommend Drowning Ruth to readers more interested in a variation on a whodunnit – more of a ‘howdunnit’ – than exploring the emotional intricacies of character motivation and growth.
Our next choice, however, should more than deliver on that front. Featured on every reading list in the past year, we are very excited to include it on ours: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. The co-winner of 2019’s Booker Prize. I’ll just have to remember to schedule the dinner for a Friday or Saturday night next time.