Stories --- embarrassing, tragic or simply amusing --- provide
hours of entertainment at reunions and other family gatherings.
Although many of us may take our family stories for granted, they
often make up a large part of our personal history and our sense of
identity. In her new novel, MOURNING RUBY, Helen Dunmore astutely
comments on the power of family stories to provide strength, hope
and even healing.
Rebecca, the novel's central figure, keenly feels the lack of
family stories shaping her own life. Left as a baby in a shoebox
outside an Italian restaurant, Rebecca has no real family and no
family stories. Only as a young adult can Rebecca make a semblance
of a family with her friend and roommate, Joe, an up-and-coming
historian who creates a home with Rebecca. His love for her remains
platonic, though, since Rebecca has adopted him as a brother rather
than as a lover.
Rebecca later marries Joe's friend Adam and has a daughter, Ruby.
Rebecca's connection to Ruby is even more dramatic than the
traditional mother-child bond. At last, in Ruby, Rebecca has a
family: "For the first time, I was tied to someone by blood."
Rebecca's visceral connection to Ruby makes Ruby's sudden death,
described in gut-wrenching detail, even more heartbreaking. I would
defy anyone who has a child to read the account of Ruby's death
without shedding a tear.
Torn apart by their misery in the wake of Ruby's death, Rebecca and
Adam separate, both throwing themselves into their work. In the
meantime, Joe is a continent away, fruitlessly trying to conduct
historical research while living with a woman he does not love.
Rebecca is haunted by dreams of Ruby in life and in death, and
Adam, a neonatal specialist, seems to try to reverse the past with
each premature baby whose life he saves.
As she tentatively makes her way back to Adam, Rebecca comes to
rely on two stories that have parallels to her own. Her employer,
the hotelier Mr. Damiano, tells Rebecca about his youth in his
family's traveling circus. And, in a gesture that speaks volumes
about his love for her, Joe breaks away from history and turns to
fiction, composing a novel that imagines both his own absent
father's past and the history of Rebecca's unknowable family tree.
This "novel within a novel" comes near the end of MOURNING RUBY and
helps Rebecca begin the process of healing her broken family
This is a thoughtful, complex novel about the power of story and
the importance of family. Readers who enjoy complex novels will
enjoy this one, as will readers who relish poetic language.
MOURNING RUBY is not an easy novel to read, either emotionally or
intellectually, but readers who become absorbed by its web of
stories will be richly rewarded.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 22, 2011
- Publication Date: February 23, 2004
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: Putnam Adult
- ISBN-10: 0399151486
- ISBN-13: 9780399151484