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Drowning Ruth (Oprah's Book Club)by Christina Schwarz
Synopses & Reviews
Drowning Ruth is a haunting debut novel about the ties that bind families together and the insidious secrets that can rend them apart. The year is 1919. The setting is a family home on Wisconsin's Lake Nagawaukee. Convinced that she is making her patients worse instead of better, Nurse Amanda Starkey has decided to take leave of her past tending wounded soldiers and return home to the farm where she grew up, "where the snowy hills were as white as bleached linen and where my sister rocked her little girl to sleep beside the kitchen stove while she waited for her husband to come back from the war. I knew that at home where I belonged I could set myself right again."
Amanda does return home, and she is a welcome sight to her sister Mattie and Mattie's three-year-old daughter Ruth. But their peaceful reunion is shattered one year later when Mattie drowns mysteriously somewhere between the shores of the Starkey farm and the family island where the women had been taking refuge. When Mattie's husband (and Ruth's father) Carl returns from the war, he finds no space for grieving. Rather, he finds that Amanda has taken to her new role as Ruth's caretaker. With a frightening intensity and that she is determined to keep the details of his wife's drowning in frozen Lake Naugawauee shrouded in mystery.
Told alternately in the voices of Amanda, Mattie and Ruth, the novel gradually unfolds a family history marked by the madness and deception, misguided loyalty and ill-fated love. Masterfully and relentlessly, first-time author Schwarz peels away the layers of these deeply troubled women, knowing at once the power of the myths we tell ourselves and the freedom that comes with breaking free of their hold. In Amanda's case, we learn that she has harbored insecurities since her childhood, and that her naivete got her into trouble long before she returned home during the war. Now, she confesses, "she [is] bone tired of all this running and hiding, of living alone with a monstrous hump of truth strapped to my back."
Equally tormented is Ruth, whose memories of her mother's death become more vivid as she gets older. She cleaves to her aunt, the only other witness that mysterious frozen night, even as she senses something deeply unnatural about their attachment to one another. As she says of Amanda: "If I changes my name and went to the ends of the earth and never came back still she wouldn't let me go. She was stuck like a burr in my hair. No, it was deeper than that-she was inside me like a bone or an organ. She'd seeped into my blood with the air I sucked into my lungs."
Love, loss, guilt, lies-these are the narrative strands that run throughout this deftly woven tale of three women and a shocking turn of events that changes their lives forever. Hauntingly narrated and grippingly paced, Drowning Ruth is a remarkably accomplished and mesmerizing debut. Author Christina Schwarz possesses a unique understanding of the American landscape and the people who live it, and in Drowning Ruth, she has created an unforgettable tale of the people who live on it, and in Drowning Ruth, she has created an unforgettable tale of the people we call home.
?[A] gripping psychological thriller....In the winter of 1919, a young mother named Mathilda Neumann drowns beneath the ice of a rural Wisconsin lake. The shock of her death dramatically changes the lives of her daughter, troubled sister, and husband....Told in the voices of several of the main characters and skipping back and forth in time, the narrative gradually and tantalizingly reveals the dark family secrets and the unsettling discoveries that lead to the truth of what actually happened the night of the drowning....Schwarz certainly succeeds at keeping the reade engrossed.? Francine Prose, Us Weekly
?A strong sense of portent and unusually vivid characters distinguish this mesmerizing first novel about horrifying family secrets and nearly annihilating guilt. Drowning Ruth is a complex and rewarding debut.? Anita Shreve, Author of The Pilot?s Wife
"COMPELLING...The immediately impressive thing about Drowning Ruth is not the author?s talent, though that is apparent within the first few pages, but the ambitious narrative scheme she's devised to tell her tale." San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle
About the Author
1. Throughout the story, Amanda seems to be alternately portrayed as either sinister and mentally unbalanced or as a sad woman who is a victim of circumstance. What are your feelings about her? Were you mostly sympathetic to her or turned off by her controlling spirit?
2. Did you find most of the main players in Drowning Ruth to be complicated and not easily categorized? Who intrigued you the most?
3. Do you think the author skillfully built up the suspense of the fateful night on the lake? Did you guess what would happen?
4. Ruth and Amandas relationship is one of the most compelling elements of the novel. At times they are presented in a mother/daughter dynamic, but at other moments they seem poised as siblings almost, or even as foils to each other- especially when Amanda speaks to us about her own childhood. How do you think Amanda regarded Ruth? What, in your mind, was the real significance of their relationship? Did Amanda truly love Ruth?
5. The lake is a striking backdrop throughout the novel, and most of the traumatic or profound moments occur there: Mathilde and Clement die there, Amanda forces Ruth to swim in it, Imogene and Ruth both fall in love upon it. Do you think the author intended for it to be symbolic of something? If so, what?
6. The complicated and varied relationships between women- friends, sisters, mothers and daughters, aunts and nieces-lie at the heart of this novel. Did any of these relationships, in particular, strike a chord with you?
7. Do you feel that Amandas jealousy of her sister was abnormal or just common sibling rivalry? Why do you think the author juxtaposed their relationship with Ruth and Imogenes?
8. Men hover at the edges of the novel. The three main male characters-Carl, Clement, Arthur-though different, are all ultimately ineffectual in some sense. Carl leaves, Clement womanizes, Arthur cannot determine whom he truly loves. Even Amandas father is barely realized. Why do you think the author created these male characters this way?
9. The island seems to be a very important metaphor. Both Mathilde and Amanda become pregnant there, and it is where they retreat to during Amandas term. She, especially, is preoccupied throughout the novel with this locale. What does the island represent?
10. Did you like the continuously shifting narration? What was the overall effect of this plot device?
11. Ruth and Imogenes intense friendship commences with the voluntary loss of Ruths dead, black tooth. Why do you think the author chose such an unusual, visually graphic scene to mark the unfolding of their intertwined lives?
12. In the end, does Ruth follow her heart, or is she still under Amandas control? Does Ruth return home truly of her own volition?
13. Were the book to continue, do you think the author would have chosen for Ruth and Arthur to unite? Why or why not? What type of man do you envision Ruth with?
14. Drowning Ruth was an Oprah Book Club selection. Have you read any other Oprah picks? If so, how did this compare?
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