REVIEW: SAVING RUTH by Zoe Fishman
“Growing up in Alabama, all Ruth Wasserman wanted was to be a blond Baptist cheerleader. But as a curly-haired Jew with a rampant sweet tooth and a smart mouth, this was an impossible dream. Not helping the situation was her older brother, David—a soccer star whose good looks, smarts, and popularity reigned at school and at home. College provided an escape route and Ruth took it.
Now home for the summer, she’s back lifeguarding and coaching alongside David, and although the job is the same, nothing else is. She’s a prisoner of her low self-esteem and unhealthy relationship with food, David is closed off and distant in a way he’s never been before, and their parents are struggling with the reality of an empty nest. When a near drowning happens on their watch, a storm of repercussions forces Ruth and David to confront long-ignored truths about their town, their family, and themselves.”
I finished this book several weeks ago, and have put off writing a review. Partly because I wanted to have time to write it thoughtfully, but I think I also needed some distance from it as so many elements hit so close to home for me.
Fishman is a fantastic storyteller – I was easily and instantly swept up into the drama of a family inelegantly stumbling through the adjustments of an empty nest refilled for the summer. Everyone is pushing everyone else away and then struggling to pull back together: the siblings, once close, can’t seem to find each other again. Their parents are not quite ready to let Ruth and David go, but don’t really know how to handle the new versions of them.
All the characters are loveably flawed, but Ruth had me from:
And then there was my outfit. If I had deliberately planned to look this way, I could see how my parents might take it as a giant “fuck you” (p1)
Ruth is painfully empathetic with everyone around her, and painfully unaware of her own self-torture. I connected deeply with her. As someone who struggled with body image and eating from adolescence on, my heart went out to Ruth. Looking in the mirror and not being sure if what you’re seeing is the truth is a scary thing.
Ruth’s family struggles with how to deal with her weight loss and obviously unhealthy eating habits. There’s a wonderful scene where Ruth’s mom impatiently comes into a dressing room where Ruth is trying on clothes and is shocked to see how thin she actually is. As she cycles through a range of emotions in response (which include, horribly yet believably, admiration), Ruth tries to reassure her mother that she’s got in under control while inside she screams her fear of gaining weight. It’s heartbreaking.
The book has a well-balanced sub plot that explores racism in the south, but it’s strength is the clear eyed examination of how parents and children collaborate to screw each other up, as well as how they can work together to take responsibility for the mess and fix what they’ve wrought that I loved.
The title “Saving Ruth” is perfectly apt. Ruth, working so hard to save her charges on the swim team, the overweight tween she’s strong armed into working out with, as well as her family and friends, finally has to face up that she needs to save herself from herself. That journey is moving, sometimes hilarious, and overall inspiring.
You might also want to check out Jenn’s Bookshelves review of Saving Ruth; she highly recommends it.