Drowning Ruth was a New York Times' Bestseller from the year 2000, and was a selection for Oprah's Book Club. Set during and after World War I, it tells the story of Amanda, who is raising her niece Ruth after Ruth's mother, Amanda's sister Mathilda, mysteriously drown in a nearby lake when Ruth was young.
This fictional novel is told from a number of perspectives and skips back and forth in time, which was a more novel device 17 years ago than it is now, when it seems to be par for the course in any new literary fiction with any sort of mystery.
However, author Christina Schwarz tackled the style with true mastery, in my opinion. I didn't have any trouble following the switch from one voice to another, and from one time period to another, but it didn't feel heavy-handed or forced. I particularly liked the sections from Ruth's perspective, where I felt like the descriptions matched the understanding and perspective she would have at that age. Authors' voicing of children and teens is an issue that can quickly ruin a book for me, because it's often so fake or forced and lacks any kind of depth. If it's part of the mystery, it's usually predictable. But Ruth's voice here is not only pure and relatable but also adds a great deal to the mysterious nature of the novel and to the reader's curiosity about what truly happened on the night Ruth's mother drowned.
Overall, I felt the building of the characters was the strongest and best part of Drowning Ruth. I felt like I could really see from their perspectives and empathize with all of them, even when their decisions had bad consequences for themselves or the others in the book. I also loved that the setting had subtle elements that reminded me that the book took place in a different time that were interesting and aded to the story but weren't shoehorned in. I was able to get lost in the story and feel as if I was there, and the tone of uneasiness throughout the novel made it slightly uncomfortable in a wonderful way, like watching an eerie film.
The back-and-forth style of the novel allows the author to tease and build the mystery over time. I usually find this style a little boring and predictable since it's used to often now, but one again I felt that Schwarz employed it perfectly and I was truly engaged and surprised as the mystery unraveled and more and more layers were revealed. Drowning Ruth is engrossing while being realistic - the shock comes from how logical and relatable the answers are to you as they are revealed, which I found helped me really get lost in the novel.
Drowning Ruth is a deep, sad novel in which the characters have complex, real relationships and are visited often by everyday tragedies that compile and take a toll. There are moments of joy, for sure, but it is not a happy book. It takes the reader's focus to follow the story and the reader's emotional strength to finish it. I loved that character of Amanda and how her perspective and values deepened and changed throughout the book as she faced loss and decided which secrets to keep and from whom. After reading the book, I realized how skilled Schwarz must have been to make me feel such empathy for Amanda even in the face of all she had done.
This book is a demanding read that will make you feel deeply and question your own values and how you would face conflicts of loyalty. It's not relaxing or comforting to read. That said, I really liked it and would recommend it if you like character-driven literary fiction with an element of mystery.