(William Morrow, 2012)
Zoe Fishman’s novel Saving Ruth is a recent example of what publishers have called “New Adult” fiction: stories treating that sticky time of life between college and adulthood when full-fledged independence is still scary and not necessarily better than the familiar comforts of home. There’s actually nothing new about “New Adult” (Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh), but Fishman takes post-adolescent literature in a new direction with her unnerving vision of a young woman at war with herself—and someone she loves.
When 19-year-old Ruth Wasserman returns home to small-town Alabama after her first year at a Midwestern college, she looks and feels a lot different than when she left, thanks to the eating disorder she tries to hide from her distracted family. To complicate matters, Ruth isn’t the only one at home going through significant changes. Her mother is in the throes of menopause, her father is suffering from empty-nest syndrome, and her older brother, whom Ruth and just about every other girl in high school idolized, isn’t himself. “Something’s off” with David, and—after an incident at the pool where the brother and sister lifeguard—Ruth gets sucked into the mystery.
In order to save her brother, Ruth must first save herself. Fishman, who’s gone public about her own struggles with anorexia, portrays Ruth’s eating disorder with the compassion of someone who’s been through it—and back. But the author retains enough objectivity to present the disease in its full complexity. As a result of her weight loss, for example, Ruth finally catches the attention of the “right” boys, which paves the way for self-healing on two fronts. Ruth also gets recruited as a diet and exercise coach for an overweight, 10-year-old girl named (regrettably) Khaki. The precocious pre-teen steals all of her scenes and—in a nice twist—ends up turning the tables and schooling Ruth. As Khaki tells her: “[My mother] wants me to be happy, or she wants to make herself happy? I’m happy the way I am. She’s the one who wants to die because she has a fat daughter.” Witty and wise beyond her years, the girl offers the kind of advice Ruth seems unable to give herself.
Ruth’s friendship with Khaki is an adolescent version of the female bonding in Fishman’s first novel, Balancing Acts, in which a clique of college friends reunites after following different career paths. Indeed, there’s plenty here for Fishman’s Chick Lit fanbase to chew on: mother-daughter drama, self-esteem issues, the limits of friendship, and—of course—sex and romance. But in Saving Ruth the family is the focus, and Fishman is at her best when delving deep into the ties that bind, especially what happens to siblings embroiled in the kind of trouble that Mom or Dad can’t make go away. The author’s rendering of Ruth and David’s intertwining fates is the heart and soul of the story. Fishman’s challenge is keeping the sibling story front and center, and this isn’t always easy in a novel that—in addition to anorexia and family dysfunction—also tackles a handful of other social and political “isms.” But the refreshingly frank and bullshit-free portrayal of Ruth and David’s journey to (new) adulthood keeps this book from drowning in issues.