Ruby by Cynthia Bond is a novel that takes place during the time of the Civil Rights movement but in a town where the changing times do not touch the rural community deep on Louisiana where the titular character was born and eventually destroyed. The story is a sort of love triangle with Ephram Jennings at the core, caught between the sister who has loved and raised him most of his life and the young girl who has returned to their home town a deeply damaged woman.
Bond’s prose is luscious, gorgeous from page one, evoking mood and tone in metaphors and wish such poetry that I began this novel with enthusiasm. There are turns of phrases so delicious, I reread them to savor the words. Then Oprah Winfrey announced it was a book club choice and I cringed. I gave up on reading her book club choices ages ago because I was tired of the themes which seemed to manifest each and every time. Mind you, her taste in books is very good and many are well written but there was no real variety and, after a few times, I stopped bothering.
Which is what I should have done with this novel because pretty prose does not and cannot make up for a story that lacks in substance. The characters are all two-dimensional and do precisely what you expect them to do. The only surprises I found on the page are the vulgarities of the abuse Ruby suffers. This is not to say that I don’t think things like this happen in real life but Bond has overlaid the events with a veneer of supernatural occurrences which takes all culpability out of the picture. In other words, no matter how heinous the events of the novel may be, and they are indescribably so, the characters that commit the worst of the crimes are not entirely responsible.
The paranormal elements of the novel fall flat for me, as flat as most of the characters. Even Ephram, who can arguably be said changes the most, doesn’t change much at all and the redemption and healing that is inevitably going to come by the novel’s end is unsatisfying. It is not surprising that this novel is being compared with Toni Morrison no more so than it is for me to say that this novel simply does not and cannot measure up. What is surprising is that I can honestly say I am interested to see what Bond writes next. She has an elegance I rarely see in literature and adore. I only hope that she can learn to create characters that will live up to her other talents.