Synopses & Reviews
National Book Award finalist Patricia Henley captivates us with this engrossing novel of a woman whose long-held secret will transform her life and her marriage.
From all appearances, Ruth Anne Bond is enviably lucky. Her husband, Johnny, still treats her like a young lover. Her grown daughter is a staunch friend. Her steady work and devotion to the church have quietly made her a pillar of the community. Then one long Indiana summer brings some unexpected communiqués—including one she has both craved and feared for thirty years. As long-hidden truths threaten to emerge, for the first time in her marriage Ruth Anne is faced with memories she and Johnny never discuss: of a year spent in Saigon in 1968—and a past she has yet to acknowledge. Probing questions of family and faith, Patricia Henley offers us a tender, far-sighted novel about seeking answers and achieving grace.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
"Henley returns with a worthy successor to her first novel, Hummingbird House....Henley, who is also a poet, balances long, stream-of-consciousness passages with short, potent sentences to wonderful effect, tilling the familiar ground of sexuality and spirituality with originality and grace." Publishers Weekly
"Vexing questions about commitment, faith, forgiveness, and love make Ruth Anne scrutinize the personal politics that control her life. Henley's second novel following National Book Award finalist Hummingbird House weaves important issues into a compelling story." Library Journal
"The author carefully charts the tumult of emotions that Ruth Anne goes through as she worries about her son, now living in the Midwest, and how to share this secret with her family. Will it wreck her relationship with her husband?" Eileen Hardy, Booklist
About the Author
Patricia Henley’s first novel, Hummingbird House,
was a finalist for the 1999 National Book Award and The New Yorker
Best Fiction Book Award. Henley has also written two books of poetry, Learning to Die
and Back Roads,
and three story collections: Friday Night at Silver Star,
which won the 1985 Montana Arts Council First Book Award; The Secret of Cartwheels;
and Worship of the Common Heart: New and Selected Stories.
Her stories have been published in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine,
and Northwest Review,
and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories
and The Pushcart Prize
Henley lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, where she teaches in the M.F.A. Creative Writing Program at Purdue University.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Reading Group Guide
“Emotionally rich. . . . Nuanced. . . . Voluptuous. . . . A true accomplishment.” —Chicago Tribune
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Patricia Henley’s In the River Sweet.
1. In the River Sweet is filled with images of embroidered quotes on banners, engraved quotes on pillars, quotes on t-shirts, lettered signs, graffiti on buildings, short stories, poems, novels, letters, e-mails. What is the importance of the printed word in this novel? How do the different means of printing affect the way the words are perceived? An e-mail instead of a letter? Graffiti on the church wall as opposed to authorized stone etchings?
2. Ruth Anne lives in River County, Indiana and often goes with her husband for romantic picnics by the river. She grew up on Lake Michigan and returns there for meditation and to be close to her dying aunt. While pregnant with Tin, she walks along the China Sea in Vietnam, and years later meets him again near Lake Michigan. What is the appeal of rivers and lakes for Ruth Anne? What is the connection between water, Ruth Anne’s tale, and the title In the River Sweet?
3. In the River Sweet occurs over the course of one summer through flashbacks, primarily Ruth Anne’s. Why has Henley chosen this structure? What is the function of Johnny’s sudden narration? Does his perspective change your view of Ruth Anne or the situation?
4. How has her Midwestern upbringing and community affected Ruth Anne, her personality and desires? How has it influenced her decisions and compromises? Despite the town and church’s disapproval of her daughter, Ruth Anne returns to River County in the end—“it’s where she had the most to learn”? Why?
5. In the River Sweet is primarily a tale about family. Does the definition of family evolve over the course of the novel? What does family mean to Ruth Anne? To Johnny? To Tin?
6. Why is Ruth Anne attracted to Vo? Compare/contrast him to her husband Johnny. How are their relationships different? What binds Ruth Anne to Vo? And to Johnny? Do the events of the novel change, or shift, these ties?
7. Why didn’t Ruth Anne tell Johnny about Vo and Tin? In doing so, did she ultimately betray or protect him? Or was it a mixture of both? What emotional price has she paid for her secret?
8. What does the fishhook poem that Tin sends symbolize? How about the Tale of Kieu with which the novel ends? How do they compare with the Western stories that Vo and Ruth Anne read together? “All literature is hope,” one of the characters says. Do you agree with this quote?
9. Johnny and Ruth Anne respond differently to their daughter’s sexuality and lover. Why the differences? What is it about their personalities, gender, and experiences that influence their reactions? Is one stronger than the other? Do you think they would have responded differently if Laurel were a son?
10. How does the hate crime change/affect each member of the family? Afterwards, why do Laurel and Oceana refuse to press charges? Why must they leave town? Is courage or fear propelling them?
11. What are the various views on organized religion presented in the novel by Father Carroll, Sister Jill, Vo, Oceana? How do Ruth Anne’s feelings about religion and spirituality transform in the novel?
12. How do Johnny’s and Ruth Anne’s opposing opinions on meditation reflect their views on life? What new perspectives does Ruth Anne gain from meditation?
13. “Jill always argued that hearts should be open to each other.” Is this philosophy too naïve? Is it a truth? Do you agree with it—in theory or in practice?
14. This is also a novel about forgiveness. Henley gives the example of the burned Vietnamese girl forgiving and embracing the American pilot who sprayed napalm on her village. What is the meaning of forgiveness? And compassion? What does it mean to be moral in today’s society?
15. How do the minor characters play into the story of the novel? Limbo, and his special relationship with Ruth Anne? Mairead, and her role in Johnny’s summer? Aunt Teensy, and her loneliness, anger, and compromises? Father Carroll, and his dogmatism?