cover image The Book of Ruth

The Book of Ruth

Jane Hamilton. Ticknor & Fields, $18.95 (328pp) ISBN 978-0-89919-744-9

In her first novel, Hamilton takes on a challenge too large for her talents. Ruth, the heroine, tells her story in the first person, but her limited point of view cannot do it full justice. Born and raised in small-town Illinois by a mother whose life keeps splintering, Ruth blames herself for her troubles, from the cold-blooded brother who always outsmarts her to the ne'er-do-well husband who nearly destroys her. Considered slow-witted, she has a cussed strength. Like the biblical Ruth, the Midwesterner is loyal to her wounded family, and has a talent for ""stepping into other people's skin"" while ignoring her own needs. Ruth's gradual self-discovery is often moving; her sharp-tongued vulnerability and whole-hearted hell-raising win our sympathy and admiration. But her transformation from victim to heroine is less convincing: Ruth's intelligence soars when she sneers, not when she mourns her errors. Another problem is uncertain plotting, with static stretches marked by obvious foreshadowings of events to come. The final violence that erupts seems exotic, not an inevitable product of clashing characters. Hamilton evokes Ruth's character marvelously, but others as seen by her are incompletely rendered. (Nov.)