The lockdown has had me browsing through my own bookshelf, looking for the titles I bought a long time ago but never got around to reading. Thankfully, we all have those. That’s how I came across ‘Drowning Ruth’ by Cristina Schwarz.
Unlike quite a few books that I pulled out of my bookshelf wondering why I had bought them in the first place, this one didn’t surprise me. It was an Oprah Book Club pick and had that famous orange and white ‘O’ on the cover. A friend, who is an avid reader, once told me that Oprah Book Club picks tend to have a particular style and storyline and that if you read one you, more or less, would have read them all. She had also mentioned that they are slow, sometimes agonizingly so.
I have to thank her for the heads up because I started Drowning Ruth prepared for a slow read that never picks up. And that was why I wasn’t disappointed. Most psychological thrillers are character driven and the plot doesn’t take centerstage. I had expected that but Schwarz goes a little overboard to hammer in the point that her characters have realistic motivations behind their actions and thus parts of the book feel a little repetitive.
The good thing is Schwarz is a skilled writer and she has crafted her characters brilliantly. You love them and hate them at the same time as you see yourself in them. The suspense part of the novel isn’t well developed. You understand what’s happening early on and that kind of takes away from the story. You are just waiting for what you already know to unfold.
Drowning Ruth opens in 1919, right after the influenza epidemic that followed the First World War. Amanda Starkey, a Lutheran farmer’s daughter who works as a nurse in Milwaukee, is seduced by a married man and finds herself pregnant. She returns to the family farm and, within a year, her sister Mathilde drowns under mysterious circumstances. When Mathilde’s husband, Carl, returns from the war, he finds Amanda has taken over his household and also has full control over his daughter, Ruth. To make matters worse, she will tell him nothing about his wife’s death.
Though touted as a thriller, Drowning Ruth is essentially a portrait of the ties that bind families and sisters together and the dangers of keeping secrets. It’s about family, social obligations, the harrowing effects of guilt, and the extent to which we are willing to go to in order to protect ourselves and the ones we love. The mystery part of it is inconsequential. After all, which family doesn’t have its secrets?
About the author
Christina Schwarz is the critically acclaimed author of #1 New York Times bestseller and Oprah Book Club pick ‘Drowning Ruth’, as well as ‘All Is Vanity’, ‘So Long at the Fair’ and ‘The Edge of the Earth’. She has a MA in English from Yale. She taught high school English for several years before becoming a writer. Schwarz currently lives in southern California.