Elayna Leopold, 35, works from home in New Jersey so that she can raise her young daughter, Hazel, while her husband puts in long hours as a lawyer in New York. Elayna is typical of women who spend their twenties chasing dreams in the city only to spend their thirties chasing children in the suburbs. Yet no one knows better than she that life can change instantly. Two years ago her infant son died, sending her into a depression from which she's just emerging. Now, suddenly thrillingly Elayna finds herself craving life's passions again. When she meets Kevin, a young artist and neighbor, she discovers a version of herself she thought was gone forever. As she uncovers yearnings that could destroy everything she cherishes, a threat to Hazel emerges from an unlikely source, making Elayna's choices and decisions that much more critical.
Riveting, tender, and utterly real, Sweet Ruin is a gripping story about one woman's search for passion amid the challenges of ordinary life and a triumph of contemporary fiction from a writer known for her candor and wisdom.
|Publisher:||Washington Square Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Cathi Hanauer is the author of the novels My Sister’s Bones and Sweet Ruin and the editor of the New York Times bestselling essay anthology The Bitch in the House. Her articles, essays, and/or criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, Self, Parenting, Whole Living, and other magazines. She lives with her family in western Massachusetts. Visit her online at CathiHanauer.com.
Read an Excerpt
I suppose, for literary effect, I should start with how everything was dying that year how the riverbed dried up into a brown Brillo pad, the wisteria shriveled on their vines. But the truth is, that brilliant April, after rain had soaked us all March, it felt to me as if the earth and the plants, the insects and trees just couldn't stay in their pants. Daffodils unfurled and grinned into bloom; tulips reached up their orange and crimson cupped hands. Across the street, the Japanese weeping cherry tree exploded into a firework of lilliputian pink clouds, while down the block Mrs. Zuppo's lily garden peeked out from its bed weeks early. All the world was a stage, and I walked around in a daze beholding the spectacle that was life. It seemed to me it had never been this way. But then, I was waking up again, after all that time.
During the more than two years since Oliver's death, my goal had been simply to get myself through the days. After dropping Hazel at preschool or kindergarten or first grade and dragging myself through the errands (grocery shopping, bill paying, dry cleaners for Paul...all those things that plague the work-at-home wife), I'd simply returned to my house and crawled back into bed, where, between the empty escape of deep naps, I did my editing work its own kind of refuge until it was time to pick up Hazel again. Then, with what felt like superhuman effort, I would act out the role of the cheerful, inspired mother I was not, somehow getting us through the hours until we were at last back in bed again her bed, this time, where we'd both fall asleep, me half-waking only to switch to my own bed and continue my dreamless coma. I never felt Paul slip into bed hours later when he finally got home. Really, it was as if I were dead, except when taking care of Hazel or working, and then I operated on automatic pilot: numb, simply soldiering on.
But this year, with the first signs of spring in my New Jersey town a slowly gentrifying commuter and college hub where octogenarian Dominicks and Guiseppes bordered thirtysomething Manhattan transplants like me, with handfuls of crunchy Gen X-ers tossed throughout something had started to change. I felt my old self, the one I'd thought was gone forever, sending out tiny shoots from deep in my bones stiff, strong, green tips to tell me the roots were still in there, I was still in there, somehow...and wanting, at last, out again. On the day this story begins, I had taken a morning walk, peeling my old Eileen Fisher cardigan from my arms to let the sun drench my pasty, winter-sapped skin. I'd headed to the fish market for two slabs of salmon, then to the bakery for a crusty ciabatta. Then a bottle of sauvignon blanc from the liquor store and a bar of fine dark chocolate for dessert. I suppose I was celebrating my rebirth. At any rate, when I got home I was ravenous, and by the time my piece of fish was done broiling I'd already sampled a few bites, standing at the oven forking the salty pink flesh into my greedy mouth, burning its tender skin. I didn't care. It was worth it to taste that delectable bliss, and to finally crave food again.
On the way to the table, I dragged my hunk of bread through the circle of salted olive oil I'd drizzled onto my plate, bit it hard, and swallowed it practically whole. Unlike Paul, who'd always been someone who eats to live, I had been and now, it seemed, was on my way back to being a happy fat person inside a genetically thin body: always anticipating my next meal, savoring it when it came. Today, I'd fixed Paul the other piece of salmon lemon, olive oil, splash of tamari and left it front and center in the fridge, just so he'd know, when he got home, having long ago eaten the dinner his law firm had called in from some trendy restaurant nearby in the financial district, that I had thought of him, that I loved him. Elayna, the loving wife. I'd also left him a salad and a couple of wedges of a perfect blood orange. Placing my dish on the table, I uncorked the wine, poured a glass, and sat down.
I ate in rapture, licking the plate at the end. Well, why not? I was alone, after all.
My work lay open next to me, a manuscript of the latest soon-to-be issue of Popular Poetry magazine. Each month, the journal reproduced classic and some contemporary poems in a palatable and accessible form for those who wanted to see what they'd missed in college or who wanted a tiny, digestible version of the contemporary poetry scene. My job, bestowed on me by an old English-major colleague at Barnard, was, frankly, a dream: I proofread and lightly edited the copy, not so much for mistakes or typos (thankfully, there was someone else for that) but for content and appeal. In essence, I was simply an early reader who each month sent back a detailed critique. I made minimal suggestions "Flip-flop the two Hopkins poems," or "More of an intro on the Dickinson might be nice" and sometimes I suggested stories. ("How about a feature on Edward Lear?") The pay was laughable, of course the job amounted to half-time work for an hourly salary barely above minimum wage but Paul's hefty lawyer paychecks made that okay, and since he worked heftily to make those paychecks, it had been more important, once we'd had Hazel, for me to do something close to home than to pull in a decent salary.
When Hazel was young, the job had provided me the perfect escape from the obsessive mothering and brutal self-examination full-time parenting can bring. Once Oliver died, the work kept me from descending into darkness when Hazel wasn't around. In fact, most of the time I'd looked forward to it as much as I could look forward to anything then. But today, after my feast (for dessert, I melted squares of the chocolate bar in the microwave and poured them over a fat ball of coffee ice cream), I was distracted, unable to focus. I glanced out between the little white curtains in my kitchen and saw a smattering of dark clouds moving in. Trees blowing, swaying. Immediately, I grew anxious. Hazel was phobic about storms, and I couldn't bear to think of her panicked out there.
I glanced at the clock above the stove. Still almost two hours until I had to get her from Pansy's house, where she went on Wednesdays half days at her school from noon until three (more days in the summer or if I got busy). I got up, wandered into the living room, and glanced out the windows. This was the ugly side of our house, and the neighborhood canine Porta Potti a small strip of dead grass between house and sidewalk, overly shaded by a big old hemlock tree. Anything that did manage to grow there the neighborhood dogs quickly dispensed with. I couldn't do much about their pissing, obviously, but the rest of what they did was illegal and infuriating when left there. Yesterday and today there had been fresh loads of poop to greet me, and looking out now, I spotted a third and felt the rage rise up through my blood, almost thrillingly. If I found out who was doing it, I'd tear the hair from his head.
I wandered to the back door and then outside, onto the deck, and I leaned over the edge of the rail, letting the balmy breeze breathe over me. It was unseasonably warm; the air felt pregnant with pollen and humidity. I closed my eyes and shook my hair down over my bare arms, then inhaled deeply, sucking in the splendor through every pore. The cicadas shrieked; the atmosphere seemed to vibrate. I could feel the charge seeping through my skin, making me tingle with life. Life, at last. I could have wept with joy.
Someone went by, walking a dog: I heard a collar jingle, loud panting, canine toenails on tar, and then I saw them, a silver Weimaraner with an orange sneaker in its mouth, leading a cute, crew-cut boy by the leash. Guy, not boy, I should say, though he was a boy compared to me. He was wearing jeans and no shirt, exposing his lightly freckled white chest. His arms were curved and ample for his otherwise lean frame. Maybe gay, I reasoned, but either way, a Gen X-er for sure, or was it Gen Y-er, these days? I watched boy and dog pass by, cross the street, and head into the driveway of the small apartment building Paul and I jokingly called the Tenement. With its Victorian charm and two sugar maples out front, it was as unlike the tenement where we'd lived in New York broken buzzers, roaches, filthy stairwell as our tree-lined enclave of a New Jersey town was unlike Manhattan. Anyway, they mounted the steps, boy and dog, and climbed to the top floor, the fourth, dog still carrying the sneaker. In they went.
I was surprised. I hadn't seen them before, and, ashamed as I am to admit it, I knew virtually everything about the area from my house to Hazel's school (and little, these days, about much of anything beyond) and certainly who'd moved into and out of the Tenement. The place was filled with young people like him, not-quite-kids with tattoos and pierced noses, tongues, lips, ear cartilage, and (yes) chins, hair of blue and green and nickel gray and magenta that stuck up with faux messiness. They were soon-to-be graduate students at the nearby university, or philosophically inclined slackers, artists, aspiring "filmmakers," living off their parents till they figured out a bearable way to make a living or invented some iPod facsimile and set themselves up for life. I loved the Tenement; it reminded me that there were people in the world with obsessions other than their commute or what preschool was best. These were people waiting for their lives to begin, people who, for all their manifestations of depression and grunge and loneliness, were secretly full of optimism and promise and the blazing, glorious arrogance of youth. Their mistakes didn't count, because their Real Lives hadn't yet begun. Things could change for them in an instant.
I glanced up at the apartment boy and dog had gone into, but other than a couple of potted plants on the fire escape, there was no sign of life. Beyond the Tenement, houses speckled the hills; if you climbed a hill at night, you could see shimmering New York City, a million seductive points of light. I heard the commuter train wail, the cars, on the main drag a few blocks away, streaming toward somewhere maybe only the new mega Home Depot near the highway. I went down into the yard, set up Hazel's T-ball apparatus, and whacked the crap out of a dozen balls, high and hard. I gathered the balls and did it again, and then again. Then I turned and stomped back inside, panting as hard as that Weimaraner.
I glanced impatiently around my kitchen, then took off my sandals and kicked them across the room. The floor Italian tiles Paul had picked out on a business trip to Sicily was cool and smooth on my feet. I peeled off my T-shirt and tossed that too, until I was down to the gray sports bra I'd chosen this morning, thinking maybe later I'd go for a run. My breasts were large and full and not too badly sagging yet, despite having nursed Hazel for a year. They were still my best feature, and I'd always made a point of standing straight, shoulders back, so I didn't turn into one of those slender, large-chested women being dragged floorward by her rack. The rest of my body was thinner than usual no exercise and little appetite for two years will do that to a person but starting, finally, to bloom back into its curvier shape, and I was glad.
In the living room, a Louis Armstrong CD was poised to play, but I wasn't in the mood. I tossed in Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill and turned up the volume. Her twangy, pissed-off rock blared out. I listened a minute, feeling it loosen me and make me happy. And then I did something I hadn't done since before I'd had Oliver. I danced.
I danced, and I kid you not I sang too, because the words seemed to be speaking to me: words about being tired but happy, sick but pretty, messed up but moving on. I twirled around, letting this sweet young thing's tough voice and angry words take me back to thirty, twenty-eight, twenty-three. When the song ended, I played it again. I was hot. Melting, really. I peeled off my skirt and hurled it, leaving my gray cotton Calvin Klein briefs. Then I leaped and twirled in my underwear, a demented overgrown ballerina; if Hazel had been there, she would have rolled her eyes. Out the window, someone rode by on a bike. The song ended. I played it three more times, then flopped on the couch, spent.
By the time I thought to look at the clock, I had all of fifteen minutes until I had to pick up Hazel at Pansy's. I bolted upstairs to shower, then rushed down and grabbed my purse big, leather, gift from Paul for my recent thirty-fifth birthday and, digging for the car keys, started toward the door. But I happened to glance out before I opened it, and what I saw made me stop and stare. Gen XY Boy and his dog were back, and Dog back arched into a sleek silver mountain, tail extended out behind him was depositing a pile of fresh turds onto my Porta Potti strip. I watched until the canine had reclosed his butt hole and retained prepooping posture. Would his person rise to the challenge and scoop up the dung? XY Boy glanced at the turds, and then as I'd somehow expected turned and headed briskly back home.
I was out my front door in two seconds. "Excuse me!" I yelled, rushing down the steps.
XY Boy stopped and turned around; XY Dog turned too, wagging his tail. "Oh, hey," Boy called, stepping toward me again. Neither one of them had an iota of guilt on his (or her) beautiful face, which pissed me off even more though my anger, I confess, was a bit subsumed by the excitement I felt at having come upon the criminal in action. "I was just " Boy started, but I cut him off. "Can I tell you something?" I stalked toward him, hands on my hips. "I have a six-year-old daughter who plays on this lawn. If there's a pile of dog shit on it, she steps in it. Then she trails it through my entire house. Have you ever tried cleaning dog shit out of the rug in your bathroom?" I stared at him, furious.
He opened his mouth, presumably to answer, but I cut him off again. He was young, beautiful, irresponsible; he was my scapegoat for all the carefree people whose dogs had crapped on my lawn for the past five years. "Do I use your yard as my toilet?" I demanded.
He smiled a little, then shook his head. "No. Not that I know of, anyway."
I saw the gleam in his eye. "Oh, go to hell," I said, because I knew I was a pathetic cliché, the aging lawyer's wife getting angry at the cute-but-careless young renter who sullied her perfect property. I turned around and marched back up to my house, anxious to get inside now. But XY Boy called, "Wait!"
I stopped and turned again.
"I guess you'd never believe me if I said I always clean up after my dog."
I snorted. "Except this one particular time when I happened to see you? You're right. I don't think I would."
"Well," he said, "this one particular time just happens to be the time I gave away my plastic bag to someone just down the block" he gestured with his head back in the direction from which he'd come "because she happened to be in her own particular dog-do bind. I figured Sasha here would probably make it home without a problem, and if she didn't, I'd just go home and get another bag and come back and clean it up."
"And that's where you were going now?" I felt myself soften just a touch; at least he cared enough to try.
He shrugged. "But I guess I don't blame you for not believing that. It's like the kid caught leaving the candy store with a pocketful of baseball cards swearing he was on his way home to get his money."
I raised my eyebrows. Maybe he wasn't as dumb as he was beautiful.
"Forget it," he said, before I could respond. "Sorry about the mess. I'll be right back to clean it up."
I shrugged now myself, as if it were really no big deal and never had been. "Whatever," I said, stealing a phrase from Hazel's repertoire, which made me realize, with renewed panic, that I was already late to get her. I came back down the steps and started to walk quickly toward the garage, away from him. "By the way," he called, "I like Alanis Morissette too. I have a great bootleg concert cd, if you ever want to borrow it. I live right across the street. Fourth floor."
I was still walking, but slowly now, and for a step or two I actually wondered how he knew I liked Alanis Morissette. And then I stopped. I turned and stared at him, feeling heat creep into my face. Had he seen me dancing in my living room? Had he been just passing by, or actually stood there looking in my window? I thought about how I'd tossed off my shirt, peeled off my skirt, hurled my body around. Oh my god. I wanted to reach out and smack him.
He may have blushed then too, realizing what his offer had revealed, but I could be mistaken. At any rate, after a second, he jumped from a standstill to a trot, like a well-trained horse. "Be right back," he called, and off he went, his dog trotting after him.
Son of a bitch, I thought. I turned and hightailed it toward my car to get Hazel.
And that was the beginning.
Copyright © 2006 by Cathi Hanauer
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide
by Cathi Hanauer
Elayna Leopold Slade seems to have the perfect life a comfortable home in the suburbs, a successful and loving husband, Paul, and a beautiful seven-year old daughter, Hazel. But Elayna's life is not at all as simple and happy as it appears. Two years ago, Elayna gave birth to a darling boy, Oliver, who died due to heart trouble within days of his birth, plunging Elayna into a deep depression that is just beginning to lift. As Elayna heals from her crippling sadness, she relishes her return to the full life that she had neglected since Oliver's death.
Elayna's mood sexual and otherwise is further buoyed when she meets an attractive, artsy twenty-something neighbor, Kevin. As her flirtation with Kevin edges towards more, Elayna turns to her best friend Celeste for support and advice. Meanwhile, Elayna works to rebuild her relationship with her father, Devon, a New York City fashion photographer who left her mother when she was young. Devon's desire to establish a close bond with Hazel leads Elayna to allow him into Hazel's life, a decision that may ultimately put Hazel in danger. Will Elayna's emergence out of her depression threaten the stability of both her marriage and her morality?
Questions and Topics for Discussion
- Sweet Ruin is written in the first person, with Elayna as the narrator. How reliable is Elayna's perception of the events in the novel? Were there any specific incidents where you suspected that her interpretation was not correct? How does the author's decision to use an unreliable narrator affect the novel as a whole?
- Elayna's only close female friend in the novel is Celeste, who is having an affair with a married man in New York City. At one point, Celeste tells Elayna, "I live vicariously through you." How does Celeste contrast with Elayna? Do you think that Elayna would live Celeste's life if she could? How does Celeste and Elayna's friendship highlight the tension between life choices choosing to be married or to be single, for example?
- In the first pages of the novel, Elayna says she is "coming out of [her] hibernation" since her son Oliver's death. Do you think there is evidence in the novel that Elayna feels guilty over his death? How is her possible guilt reflected in her relationship with Hazel? With Paul? For example, is she more willing to make excuses for Paul's long hours at work because she feels she has not provided a complete and healthy family for him?
- Physical touch is a major theme in the novel, and it is one of Elayna's central methods of emotional connection. Cindi, Elayna's sister, tells her that she is "oversexualized." Do you agree? How does Elayna's sexuality play into all of her relationships in the novel? How does it affect her decision to allow Hazel to model?
- At one point, Elayna says "There's a fine line between denial and staying optimistic." How does she walk this line, particularly in her relationship with her father? Do you think Elayna is, as her sister suggests on page 32, in denial about her father's behavior? How has Elayna's relationship with her father both in childhood and adulthood molded her perception of herself? Do you think she has a healthy level of self-esteem?
- At the end of the novel, Elayna says "Paul is my love, my love, the love of my life." Do you believe her? Why or why not? Were you frustrated by or sympathetic to Elayna's attempts to convince herself that her marriage was healthy and successful? Is it possible to be married to the love of your life and, at the same time, betray that love in some way as Elayna betrays Paul's trust?
- The sensuality of Sweet Ruin is palpable food, weather, even the descriptions of Hazel are all awash with it. For example, in the early pages of the novel, there is a description of Elayna going onto her deck: "I closed my eyes and shook my hair down over my bare arms, then inhaled deeply, sucking in the splendor through every pore . . . I could feel the charge seeping through my skin, making me tingle with life." Why is Elayna's new physical and sexual awareness a necessary step for her recovery from Oliver's death?
- As they're driving home from New York City after Hazel's first fashion show, Paul and Elayna get into an argument about Hazel's behavior. Paul tells Elayna that "she was being inappropriate" and Elayna responds "She was being funny. That's how kids are funny at that age." With whom do you agree and why? How does this argument reveal the larger issues in Paul and Elayna's marriage? On a different note, do you think that Elayna gives Hazel too much power in their relationship? Why or why not?
- Is the intimacy that Elayna and Kevin share throughout the novel purely physical, or is there an emotional element? What does Elayna find most attractive about Kevin his youth, or something else? Why?
- Elayna's father, Devon Leopold, is one of the most ambiguous characters in the novel. Do you think that he is a sympathetic character, or did you find it easy to condemn him and his behavior? How did both Elayna's and Hazel's relationships with Devon shape your impressions of him?
- When they run into each other in New York City, Kevin tells Elayna "I just I feel like I want to save you, or something." What do you think he means by this? Do you believe that Kevin truly cares for Elayna? Do you blame one more than the other regarding their relationship?
- At the end of the novel, Elayna says: "There's a part of Paul that will never fully trust me again and that's a terrible thing for a husband to have to wield, and a hideous scar to have in a marriage. But . . . the scars are part and parcel, so why wish them away?" Do you agree with Elayna that scars are a necessary part of any marriage? Do you think that Paul and Elayna's marriage will survive?
Tips to Enhance Your Book Club
- In one of the central scenes of the book, Elayna and Kevin go to see Dancer in the Dark, a movie about a Czechoslovakian woman who immigrates to America with her young son. (Bjork was nominated for an Oscar for this role.) Before your group meets, rent and watch the movie. During your discussion, talk about how the themes in the movie illuminate the book, and specifically Elayna's relationship with Hazel. Why does the movie have such an impact on Elayna?
- Food is a central symbolic element in the novel, representing everything from sensuality to comfort. If you are the host for the group, provide dark chocolate Belgian truffles, white wine, and peppermint tea for your guests. You can buy a box of 16 handmade truffles for $21.50 at www.abountifulharvest.com/perfect_truffle.asp. If you make dinner for your group, serve the lemongrass chicken that Elayna eats alone in the city. You can find the recipe at http://www.recipesource.com/ethnic/asia/vietnamese/lemongrass-chicken1.html.
- Learn more about pottery-making classes in your area by visiting http://www.kilnpottery.com for an example of how it works, and an idea of the costs. Plan a weekend outing with willing members of your book group. Bring your creations to the next discussion.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I really enjoyed this book until close to the end. I feared that it was going to turn into a morality tale, and was right. This mid-30's mother is in a slump for many reasons and the "boy" across the street's attention starts to bring her back to life. She resists because she is "happily" married and adores her daughter. When she finally does give in, something happens to her daughter that wouldn't have if she had been where she felt she "should" have been, but was too preoccupied with cutie pie across the street. Now she has to try to repair the damage she has done.Don't get me wrong. I don't applaud adultery. I don't think that anyone walks around thinking that adultery is a good life decision. However, life happens and it can get messy. Things aren't always black and white. I don't think that someone or their child should necessarily be punished for making a choice. That being said, the ending of the book just bothered me. Blech.
I didn't like this book but finished it just to see what would happen. I felt little sympathy for the wife, I wanted to smack the husband, the grandfather made ME feel dirty and I felt like the six year old manner of speaking was more like a 12 year old. And the 20-something neighbor I kept picturing as Kevin Connolly on Entourage don't ask me why. I was glad when it was over.
This was such a well written book. The story was easy to follow and the characters were believable. I didn't want to put it down.
I finished this book in 2 days and it kept me up all night to finish it. I COULD NOT put it down.The characters were so believable and so different from each other. I don't want to give too much away but this is a great book to read on a summer vacation. It takes place during the summer months and you are guarnteed to find a character to relate to.Excellent read.
I found this book at the perfect time in my life because I could honestly relate to the characters. The characters are 'real' people with real-life problems. I would recommend this book to anyone, I really enjoyed it and could not put it down!
I just love this book. I can't put it down. For someone who has a short attention span, i find myself only engrossed in this character's life. I would recommend this book to anyone!!
Cathi Hanaure's new book, SWEET RUIN, is a delicious read meant for every woman. In this book exist 'real' women for a change, and they also experience very normal feelings, temptations, failings, and successes. But , there are a few shockers thrown in to keep the story passed quickly. A young wife and mother who adores her 6 years old daughter, is passing through a period of great sadness and loss after the death of her infant son. She loves her husband and he loves her, but he seems to have thrown himself into work to salve his pain. That leaves Elayna with too much time on her hands!!! Our heroine, Elayna, has an interesting past with her Mom, Dad and sister that continues to affect her today. She finds herself and her daughter greatly enjoying their times of watching her young nephew. Her sister is a real 'space case' herself. Elayna's best friend is feisty, funny and intensely loyal. She is also single, sexual, and loving her life. Then we have thrown in a much too typical overly protective, extremely organized and intensely opinionated day care provider, Pansy. And Finally, we add in the cute young man across the street who gets Elayna's juices flowing. Nothing simple or commonplace follows the interactions of all these people. The story flies along with emotion, humor, fearful moments, and testing trials. The book is amazingly new and innovative for what may seem, at first, like a typical 'chick lit'. It is a must read for women of all ages and stages of life. If nothing else you will fall in love with Elayna and her daughter. There are multiple issues that would be great for book group discussions and story telling amongst friends.