"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sweet Ruin by Cathi Hanauer

Elayna Leopold's story is a typical one in many ways: She's a suburban housewife with a young daughter, a workaholic husband, and an attraction to the adorable (and much younger) boy across the street. What I soon learn about Elayna, though, is that she's suffered two great losses in her life: the first, when she was a child, a loss of innocence after an episode with her parents; the second, much more recently, a loss of innocence of a very different kind: the death of her infant son, Oliver.

When I meet Elayna, Oliver has been gone for a year, and she's slowly reaching the acceptance stage of her grief. Helping her through the grieving process are her six-year-old daughter Hazel and best friend and college roommate Celeste. (Her husband, Paul, is a lawyer who's working around the clock on a death row case, and he's rarely home.) But it is Kevin, the artist across the street with the Weimaraner who poops in her yard, who will be both Elayna's salvation and her downfall as she hurtles toward something she can't take back.

Author Cathi Hanauer has a true gift. Sweet Ruin is a beautifully written novel, with particularly stunning descriptions of the seasons (which serve as a larger framework for the novel). Hanauer has a keen eye for detail and a good ear for dialogue. Her observations and insights on suburban life are spot-on and subtly sarcastic, which amused me.

However, I found many of the characters to be lacking, both in substance and believability. Elayna herself comes across as shallow and self-indulgent. I really wanted to have sympathy for her, but Hanauer never really offered me the opportunity to mourn Oliver's loss along with Elayna. Instead, I was treated to Elayna's seemingly endless interior monologue, most of it regarding Kevin. Kevin himself is never really fleshed-out, and I struggled to see Elayna's attraction to him. The character of Pansy, Hazel's daycare teacher, was a little bit too wacky for me; I just didn't "get" her. And the situation with Elayna's father was just creepy and could have been left out of the novel entirely.

What really saved the novel, for me, was Hazel. I saw her as an endearing, bright character in a novel of hollow ones. She lends a sense of innocence to the plot, and Hanauer really succeeds in conveying her expressions, dialogue, and utter child-ness. Hazel is the kind of child I want to have; Hanauer portrays her beautifully.

I really wanted to love this novel; as I mentioned, the writing is beautiful. I plan on picking up Hanauer's first novel from the library; I think she's an author I'll like reading. I just hope, in her next novel, she explores less stereotypical territory.

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