Christina Schwarz’s first novel, Drowning Ruth became an Oprah’s Book Club pick back in 2001. Following Amanda Starkey and her niece, Ruth, as World War I comes to a close. Despite Ruth’s father having suffered an injury while serving over seas, the lasting damage of the war proves to have occurred at home while he was away. Amanda will not reveal what it was that happened on a cold November night that left her sister, Mathilda drowned. But Ruth always remembers drowning the same night her mother did.
Schwarz moves through time, following Amanda and Ruth from 1919 through the early 1930s as they adjust to life on the family farm and the nearby lake becomes a favorite summer spot for the wealthy city crowd. She frequently flashes back to the autumn on the lake and the night everything went wrong.
Not only does Schwarz play with the presentation of time, she also plays with narrative voice. Early in the novel, Amanda narrates large portions in the first person and her narration continues to pop up throughout. Ruth’s perspective is also given occasionally, though, at greater length in the novel’s second half. Most of the novel is presented in the traditional third person narrative.
The combined changes of time and voice help to keep the reader’s attention engaged and guessing. A plot that at first appears extremely complicated and intertwined, slowly reveals itself to be more simple and easily grasped. It wasn’t the events that comprise the plot that so upset Amanda and Ruth, it was their own emotional reactions, and in some cases, overreactions, that give that air of complication to the novel.
Though relatively well balanced, there were a number of instances where dramatic crossed the line into melodramatic and Schwarz lost her edge. The last quarter of the novel was weaker, ripe with predictably clichéd plot twists meant to wrap up loose ends that only existed because of an attempt to add unnecessary drama in one subplot.
Schwarz ended on a final high note as the truth of what happened that cold November night out on the ice is fully revealed, satisfying the reader who probably guessed the simple truth pages if not chapters earlier.
There was one line through the novel that was mentioned several times regarding Amanda and an old flame, Joe, but ultimately it was left unfinished. I was a little disappointed that it was used to tease the reader during the first half of the novel but was seemingly forgotten in the course of the novel’s second half.
Overall, wonderful pacing and emotional characters kept the truth of a relatively simple plot hidden and a satisfying ending made up for a few questionable decisions regarding the second half’s subplots and a few underdeveloped characters and back-stories.
Schwarz’s second novel, So Long at the Fair, published in 2008, may be worth a look if it finds its way onto my bookcase, but I don’t know that I’ll be actively pursuing it.