Reviews

Learning To Love Yourself

A review of Faith Sullivan's novel, "Ruby & Roland"

Faith Sullivan’s latest novel, Ruby & Roland, is narrated by Ruby Drake, a lovable young heroine who loses her parents at age twelve to a tragic accident. She’s sent to live with families around the Midwest, and searches for meaning in new relationships and landscapes that eventually drive her toward successful self-actualization.

Following her childhood loss, Ruby moves from Illinois to Iowa, then on to Harvester, Minnesota, as hired help for a farm family. It’s here, with the Schoonovers, hard-working farmers that provide endless warmth toward Ruby, that she finds a home again, and a heated love triangle along with it as she starts up an affair with her married young neighbor, Roland.

Though the title suggests romance, this novel is much more a coming-of-age story about a witty, bookish teenager with overflowing compassion for those around her. Her compelling thoughts are many years ahead of her age and she makes level-headed decisions. But she finds herself in conflict when Dora, the wife of her lover, requires Ruby’s bedside care, and a different kind of devotion emerges.

As Ruby builds a sense of belonging in Harvester, she rejects societal expectations and sentimentality, learning everything there is to know about farm life and taking up smoking and drinking. She is quick to resign to the fact that a life with Roland will never be attainable, at least not in the traditional sense.

Sullivan’s writing is charming, and she has created a refreshing, unconventional love story. The two primary settings, Beardsley, Illinois, and Harvester, help to develop the perimeter characters in Ruby’s life—Professor Cromwell, a smart and handsome friend of Ruby’s parents who keeps tabs on her travels, and Ruby’s dying great aunt, who treats her with severity.

Though the story is set in the World War I era, the ideas are very much accessible to contemporary life. The novel explores what it means to create your own family, your own path forward, when you’re left without much of anything in the world except a handful of belongings and some difficult memories.

Ruby herself is the true triumph of this novel—she is able to recreate the warm feelings of her childhood wherever she goes, with her curiosity, ambition, and never-failing love. In this way, Sullivan has created a courageous story of self-love.

FICTION
Ruby & Roland
By Faith Sullivan
Milkweed Editions

September 10, 2019

Faith Sullivan is the author of many novels, including GardeniasThe Cape Ann, What a Woman Must Do, and, most recently, Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse. An indefatigable champion of literary culture and her fellow writers, she has visited with hundreds of book clubs and lives in Minneapolis.

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