I’ve long wanted to read Moore’s Book of Mormon-themed fiction, but she’s written them faster than I could get around to reading them, which I find paralyzing (I’m a terrible consumer of series). Which is a great thing about reading for the Whitneys because it gets me to consume books before the zeitgeist sweeps past. This year I only had time to read one category and perhaps I should have chosen Historical rather than General because Moore is nominated for tackling perhaps my favorite story in scripture—Esther. And I would have preferred my first read of her work to be what she is most revered for.
Which isn’t to say her contemporary work doesn’t have an audience (I understand it’s rather large, in fact) just that I hear less praise for it.
Ruby’s Secret is part of the Newport Ladies Book Club series written in alternating volumes with three other writers, each starring a different member of the book club (the final volume will feature all the characters and be cowritten by the entire stable).
Let’s start our discussion of Ruby’s Secret with the intertextuality that comes from the series’s characters orbiting a sequence of books. The books they read in these pages are The Help, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The War of Art, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which make for a nice variety of reading for the ladies. The success of these various volumes in tying into the events of Ruby’s Secret varies (The Help and Henrietta Lacks seem to have very little life outside the book-club meetings while The War of Art becomes practically a spiritual guide for our protagonist), but I appreciated the effort to add layers to what is, overall, rather simple storytelling.
One thing I found frustrating in this read was its lack of details. For instance, the title of Ruby’s love interest’s dogeared paperback is held back a ridiculously long time—for okay reasons, but Ruby’s lack of curiosity doesn’t ring true for a booklover; and food that’s “simple but delicious” but not any particular dish is certainly a missed opportunity to ground Ruby’s reality. These holes in the texture of her world means we the reader aren’t sufficiently embedded when important details are delivered—and thus we don’t quite feel their full impact.
[By the way, spoilers ahead, etc etc.]
Among the important issues the novel wants us to face are mental illness and infidelity and physical abuse and drug addiction, yet the lightness of the surrounding world means we can do little more than admit their existence—we never really feel the depth of horror we should because the world these ills live in is too lightly drawn.
Thus, say, the sudden introduction of Ruby’s great-niece’s theft in the final act seems to have no purpose besides “redeeming” the redeemed drug addict by returning her to a drug addict’s truth: she’s a bad person, no matter how much she seemed to have turned her life around in act one. The narrative doesn’t show us the great-niece once she has refallen, details that might have better allowed us to grapple with the difficulty inherent in such a situation. In other words, this part of the story, instead of deepening character or setting or sense of family, comes off instead like a purely political statement that drug addicts belong in jail and let us all together smile sadly and shake our heads at those darned bleeding-heart liberals who think people shouldn’t go to prison for their sins. The baldness of this position remains startling long after finishing the final page, especially because the only times Ruby’s great-niece is onscreen she seems to be clean and filled with future.
You’ll notice in that last paragraph that I can’t stay away from movie language (final act, onscreen) when discussing Ruby’s Secret. The story would, I think, actually make a better movie than book because the addition of bright colors and on-location sunshine and charismatic actors would add the stuff that’s missing from this oversimplified story. And it’s already structured like a movie: Act one is pre-Greece; act two is Greece; act three is post-Greece. Each of the major plot elements tracks to this Greece-centric structure, including the (I should admit) throwaway druggie/theft subplot.
The film would be, in its second act, delightfully colorful as the vacation to Greece is bright and fun and full of sun and sand and stars a slightly older version of Pierce Brosnan as Ruby’s match, Gabriel.
Early on, Gabriel seems very Wickham-like when talking about his ex-wife, and not until very late in the story am I sure that he’s not a manipulating bastard, even though that outcome wouldn’t fit the story that seems to be getting told. In part, I had this difficulty because he, like Wickham, immediately opens up to Ruby—telling her the awful difficulties of his long marriage to a woman with severe mental illness who has attempted to kill him multiple times.
That said, in the final chapters, when I’ve finally accepted his sincerity and the inevitability of his and Ruby’s joining, the subtle motions and touches and leanings-in are true and real and their relationship has a truth and sweetness that nearly redeems the long uncertainty.
The senior group that Ruby accompanies to Greece (as well as Ruby and Gabriel themselves) are refreshingly youthful—I love seeing older folks not being relegated to sitting on the porch, having lived. These elders are alive and looking forward as much as they look backward. Or, at least they are now that Ruby’s present.
It’s a bit difficult to parse whether this group of seniors was actively living before Ruby’s appearance. On the one hand, they’ve heard the same lectures of long-ago trip dozens of times without visiting those places themselves, while at the same time they have a close relationship with a travel agency. Little inconsistencies like this (the gap between chapters 21 to 22 loses track of what “tomorrow” is, and in the transition between chapters 5 and 6 the narration forgets who’s calling whom) make the novel frustrating at times, though the frothiness of the prose makes it reasonably easy to just keep reading without worrying too much. The voice is pleasant and upbeat, and I never read sentences that made me yell at my book (like I did with some of the other finalists).
And this pleasantness makes sense: Ruby’s life is a sequence of contacting those in her network (which makes her very human but results in rather a lot of personality juggling for the reader); she likes people and becomes other’s favorite person with very little impetus. So of course a narration based in her perspective will be likable as well. And, at the end, when Gabriel says he’ll “be the one calling [her] over and over” (217)—just like Ruby’s been for everyone else all along—we can’t help but to feel she is, at long last, getting what she deserves.
The last thing I want to talk about is the novel’s great cathartic scene, but before I can, I need to explain the novel’s title. Ruby’s secret is twofold: first that her husband was a serial philanderer—Ruby was aware of this for decades and kept mementos from each of his dalliances. Second, and more critically, as he was dying and begging for her forgiveness, Ruby withheld it. She holds tremendous guilt over this and from very early it’s clear that love interest or no love interest, the true quest for Ruby will be forgiving herself for withholding this kindness and then sending the box of mementos up in flame.
Ends up I was wrong about the flame, but dropping these relics of unfaithfulness into the ocean was in fact more satisfying because it was more honest. Her past hasn’t disappeared—it’s just sunk out of her conscious sight—an old symbolic role of the sea.
This cathartic scene was well executed but the stakes, alas, were never high enough—that Ruby’s great unimaginable sin was not forgiving her dying husband never quite rang true, even though it is the titular secret and the entire thrust of the plot.
That said, it was a lovely lovely ending—the craft at this point of the novel is fine—and a good ending covers many prior failings.