REVIEW: Ruthie Knox’s TRULY Yourself

Truly

Finally, a lovely Loveswept cover (no waxy mannequins)!

Ruthie Knox’s latest (previously serialized) novel and first in the New York series, Truly, exemplifies a theme dear to Knox: the discovery and triumph of the hero’s and heroine’s authentic selves. The discovery of the authentic self on the part of heroine and hero is worked out in the romantic relationship of desire, conflict, and love; push-back comes from their masked, or social selves and embedded family neuroses. Miss Bates must say she loves this about Knox and finds it endearingly American: the notion that authenticity is at the core of the self and the self can be remade in a more open, psychically healthier and happier way. When Knox is at her best, her core characters’ authentic selves emerge by abrading the old skin of past hurts and habitual patterns of self-sabotage. This was so in Miss Bates’ favourite Knox novels, Ride With Me and About Last Night, as it was of the less-successful Camelot and Roman Holiday series. (It is a theme that runs throughout her Robin York NA Caroline and West series, more successfully than the latter titles.) Knox’s writer’s-triumph depends on her willingness to free her characters to gambol and screw up and argue and have messy passionate sex; her weakness is a tendency to use them as mouthpieces. Where does Truly fall on that spectrum? Miss Bates loved most of it: the writing is smooth and funny and touching. She loved the opening with the surly hero and innocent-in-the-city, “dairymaid”-wholesome heroine; she loved the interactions between Ben Hausman and May Fredericks. She loved the NYC setting and the hero and heroine wandering through it, falling in love, kissing, challenging each other, and exploring its parks, restaurants, and denizens’ mosaic. However, once again embracing the journey narrative that Knox favours, she transports her couple to Wisconsin … and there, things fall apart and the centre doesn’t hold.

With the journey arc as the binder to her novels, Knox is free to develop character and set scenes descriptively. Truly‘s opening is masterfully handled. May Fredericks has publicly dumped her professional football hero boyfriend in the middle of his public proposal by stabbing him with a shrimp fork. Leaving his apartment, she’s mugged and now sits in a bar nursing a beer and trying to figure out what to do. Ben Hausman enters hoodied and sullen and sits nearby. Everything about him screams “stay away.” Ben is a man seething with anger: having lost his restaurant and his wife thanks to rages and tantrums. He’s keeping bees, living on his ex-wife’s settlement money, and using a friend’s apartment. Ben is adrift and May is lost: a match made in … well … a chance encounter at a bar. Miss Bates loved it. May’s innocent-in-the-city friendliness pushes Ben into conversation and eventually helping her out with a meal, shower, bed … and money to get home to Wisconsin the next day. Except it’s hard, even domestically, to get on a plane these days. May returns to Ben and Ben begins to thaw as May begins to find her spine and sense. Ben goes from being a man “fueled by tension and aimless hostility” to a pretty nice guy, which is his true, or authentic self. He’s had his blockages, as we eventually learn and they are typical guy-skirting-of-emotion stemming from the father and a constrictive demanding male culture (see Tony in Making It Last). On her part, May has to find a way to navigate between aggression and passivity; her realization comes with new clothes and renewed sense of self. She has to look in the mirror to find “a powerful, impolite, passionate woman.” (Miss Bates has always wondered why Knox finds the shedding of manners an important step in authenticity? She understands that Knox wants to say something about the stifling of the self in good-girl culture … but Miss Bates has also known some pretty lethal “good” girls. Miss Bates would argue that it depends on whether you’re wielding your good-girl-hood as a weapon or holding it up as shield.)

One of the strengths of the novel, however, is Ben, who discovers his better, authentic self by helping and caring for another person. His problem, of course, then becomes that he has to admit to his feelings for May and feelings frighten Ben, as they often frighten Knox heroes. What he can’t fight are need and desire: deeper, more visceral “needs” masked by sexual desire. He drives May to Wisconsin to ensure that she’s at her sister’s, Allie’s, wedding. Wisconsin becomes a comic heart of darkness as May and Ben revert to their childhood selves as a segue to understanding their bad decisions and trying to live in a better, more authentic future. Wisconsin is May’s reckoning within her family dynamic: her needy, flighty sister who doesn’t really want to marry her fiancé, loving but stifling mother, loving but silent father. And her newly discovered love for a man she’s known for a week and whose surliness and distance, at times, hurt her so much. Confronted by the reality of her life, May withdraws into mouse-May, no-confidence May, and doormat-May. Frankly, Miss Bates enjoyed this part of the novel the least: not because of May’s regression, that’s understandable, but because Knox lost control over her narrative. She veered off into farce over Allie’s wedding, or not-wedding, and made her point about living authentically by showing characters who behave erratically and hurtfully as an exercise of existential freedom. The answer may lie in Knox’s philosophy as voiced by May and Ben: that life is “disgusting and amazing,” a statement whose dichotomy will leave her characters in a perpetual state of tension. But to Knox, tension is a better choice than stagnation and you’re either going to love her, or not, for it. Miss Bates is not thus philosophically, or existentially inclined, but she still loves Knox at her best. When characters speak lines such as these, however, it sounds contrived to her.

In Ruthie Knox’s Truly, Miss Bates found evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma, because Knox is a romance writer who is consistently interesting and wants to take the romance narrative to new and unexplored places. Miss Bates doesn’t always enjoy the journey when she’s on the Knox train, but she never regrets climbing aboard.

Ruthie Knox’s Truly is published by Loveswept (Random House) and has been available in e-format since August 5th at the usual vendors.

Miss Bate is grateful to Loveswept for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in order to consider the novel for review.

33 thoughts on “REVIEW: Ruthie Knox’s TRULY Yourself

  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly that the story went off the rails in Wisconsin. You are right to term it almost a farce at that point. I felt we were transported to screw-ball comedy at that point with Ben impersonating the Agent’s assistant. I stalled in my re-reading at that point. It worked much better for me during my first read when it was serialized.

    Knox does seem to equate loss of manners with realness and authenticity. I see that as a reaction to a particular vision of Midwestern niceness. Popular culture allows Southerners to be mannered and catty, New Yorkers to be rude, Left coast folk to self-involved but Midwesterners are seen to be politely reserved, salt of the earth, almost doormat nice. If you break one of them, you are getting pass the social shell.

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    • What a great summary of America for Miss Bates! As a Canadian, she’d say that we wear our niceness, actually diffidence which comes, she thinks, from constantly looking at the ground to avoid falling on snow, or ice, quite proudly. Canada is blessed to have Quebec because Quebec, while a recalcitrant child, brings a certain ebullience to the country. And all those things you describe about MidWesterners, well, they sound pretty lovely. But it is a sticking point for Knox and she does make much of breaking it down.

      Miss Bates always enjoys her books, even when she detects the flaws in them.

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  2. What an interesting review–as a Midwesterner myself, I was fascinated by the parts about politeness. I agree with Ana that Knox’s view of politeness as stifling and inauthentic comes from her Midwestern background (I think she’s talked about this, maybe, in blog posts?). And I think it does often work that way, especially for women. It is not “nice” to be angry, to challenge people and things you think are wrong. I was an urban Midwesterner, mostly, and I didn’t experience the full brunt of that culture, but I still sometimes got things like “I hope you won’t be strident” from my grandmothers. You made me really curious about this book.

    I really loved Ride With Me and also “Big Boy” (which was a problematic read for me in some ways but which I also had a visceral emotional connection to because I recognized some of my own experiences in the heroine’s). But I have fallen way behind on reading KNox. It’s partly that her output is so prodigious–I have this problem with a LOT of authors today–I don’t want to read that much of anyone, even if I like them; I have other things to read. But also, I think I was afraid that my feelings about other books wouldn’t measure up. Maybe it’s time to go back! I certainly have some in my TBR.

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    • Miss Bates is so glad you found the review interesting. She wrote quickly and somewhat unthinkingly that she suspects she’s overthought, “overwrought,” and over-planned too many reviews. Authenticity and the mask of politeness as a role that women are compelled into by familial and social pressures, “good-girl syndrome,” is a state familiar to women anywhere, Miss Bates would say, but there may be variations in the way good-girl-hood is defined. Certainly, in her own brought-up Mediterranean culture, being a good girl involved staying sexually pure, not dating, making marriage and family your hmmm, not even goal, but raison d’etre. Being good involved being adept at the household arts. Manners were not about “please” and “thank you” (she learned that from her English Protestant school), but not shaming your family in any way. It really involves reputation. Not so much manners. So, conversely, “manners” as in public behaviour are pretty loose and free as long as they don’t bring shame to the family. It is as stifling as staying calm, not being “strident” as you put it, which, BTW, I LOVED that word! Manners, politeness, were definitely a Western thing and Miss B. had to learn to wield them in order to succeed in the greater world, beyond her family and community. However, yelling, laughing, dancing riotously, and crying publicly are de rigeur which, as a introvert, Miss B. has found difficult, though in the Midwest, she’d be too loud, too funny, to peasant-sarcastic. She’s taken one four-day trip to the Midwest of the US and, though she’s always felt churlish about her observation, she found the people to be flat in affect. She wanted them to be more animated, to speak up, to laugh louder … so, it’s interesting to think how we define and experience manners and politeness.

      (In her own culture, above and beyond what’s she’s described in the previous paragraph, the most important aspect of social “politeness” is reciprocity, especially in the exchange of gifts and invitations. So, she’d say that the mess that Truly‘s Allie and May make of the wedding was appalling to her. Suffice to say, she is infinitely fascinated by the way we respond to texts as we bring so much of our familial and cultural baggage with us.)

      Knox is pretty prodigious, isn’t she? Miss Bates too likes to take a break from certain romance writers even though she essentially quite likes them … but romance is always at the mercy of repetition, isn’t it? She’d say you might want to give Knox another chance after your hiatus: it’s not perfect and it does fall apart, but the opening and the NYC scenes are a lot of fun.

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      • I think I want to have babies with this comment. I had a similar experience coming from Israel (a somewhat Mediterranean culture, but with some differences from what you describe–I left at too young an age to say how important being the kind of “good girl” you describe was there, but I do recall that much fewer people got divorced when I was a kid, and when someone did it was almost a scandal) to small-town Illinois which is squarely in the Midwest.

        I too had to learn what was considered good manners, and it’s funny to me now that whenever I’m in Israel, people there comment on how polite I am with all my thank you’s. But what I relate most to in your comment is that sense of alienation, of wanting people to laugh louder, to be more animated.

        I remember missing hand gestures and that facial expressions were so hard for me to read. Even physical space between people was different. I can’t describe how shut out and rejected I felt by those things back then.

        I don’t feel that way now; after a lot of years in upstate New York (which is quite different from New York City) and several in California, I’m much different. But these memories will always be with me, so I wanted to say thank you for articulating this.

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        • And thank you for giving Miss Bates a loud, too-loud echo-loud laugh with your opening salvo!

          And Miss Bates totally relates to your returns to Israel: returning to Greece every summer for years (not for the past ten though), everyone commented on how polite Miss B. is. She even makes a point to use the formal you, as in “vous,” in French, which most Greeks don’t bother with anymore. But she’s going to stick to what she’s learned, that familiarity breeds contempt. So, she’s a bit too loud and brash for polite and understated Canada and too understated for the more riotous Mediterranean world … stuck somewhere in the middle. And Canada is different from the US in that assimilation into the greater Canadian myth … well, there isn’t one, so one tends to cling to our communities of origin more.

          She’s glad to hear that you feel a part of something now, a sense of belonging. 🙂

          P.S. Maybe you’ve seen it, but one of the best films to capture that peasant cunning and family shame and reputation is an Israeli film called Late Marriage. It’s a great film, the failure of romance to triumph over ethnic identity and loyalties, as well as self-interest, and contains the best scene of realistic love-making between a man and a woman Miss B’s seen on film.

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          • You know, I think that “stuck somewhere in the middle” feeling is one many ex-pats share. Once we’ve been transplanted, our roots don’t take to new soil quite the same way. But that doesn’t mean we can’t blossom, and I think articulating these experiences and finding others who share them is one way to do so.

            I haven’t seen “Late Marriage” but I’ve heard good things about it. I wonder if you might also like “Fill the Void”, an Israeli film dealing with a young girl’s arranged marriage in the orthodox community. It is heartbreaking but very powerful, and deals with the similar topics– ethnic/religious identity, family loyalties vs. self interest and romance.

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            • Absolutely, we can blossom. And Miss B. also thinks that it offers a unique perspective to be participants and observers of two cultures, two worlds. Miss B. really enjoys that: it not always easy, but she likes the distance it affords.

              She too has heard of Fill the Void: that would be most interesting to her. She’ll definitely look for it.

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  3. Great review. This book seems to have a lot of the things that don’t work for me about Knox’s romances, but the way you lay out the issues gives me a better understanding of why so many readers enjoy her work.

    One question, though: May is mugged and then goes to a bar? On the same night? Does she not go to the cops? I have to say that I’ve spent a lot of time in NYC bars and I’ve been mugged several times in big cities, and I have never gone immediately to a bar. I’ve always contacted the police, and that usually takes a while, after which they kindly drop me home (since I have no money for anything else).

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    • Thank you! 🙂 What appeals to Miss B. about Knox is not so much the ethos: it’s always what brings a review down for her, but the writing. It’s really adept, really smooth, in control … until Knox’s flashing light in a Broadway banner THEME takes over. Then, she loses Miss B.

      And speaking of Broadway, in an effort to curtail Miss B.’s tendency to indulge in spoilers, she didn’t mention that May’s purse is taken by a paparazzo in pursuit of the football hero’s public humiliation story. And yes, May should have taken her plight to the authorities … as Miss B. too, like you, has been mugged in cities and turned to the uniformed guys for help. But Miss B. thinks that, even though she didn’t dwell on it in this review, Knox also finds virtue in irrationality. Behaving irrationally, or daringly, or carelessly may all also be the first steps to expressing the authentic self.

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    • I read this in the serial format (although I waited until it was all posted so I read it as a complete book). I struggled to like May at the beginning because I really found her unbelievably naive. She’s stuck in NYC without phone/money/keys and her best solution is to go to a bar? No matter what sports team they’re showing on the TV, she had better options than that. Like go and claim her own stuff and just face up to the ex.

      Having said that, I did really enjoy Ben and there was a lot I liked about the book.

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      • It is difficult when Miss B. pities the heroine more than she likes her and that was so with poor May. Even when she does seems to work up some chutzpah, she goes overboard and stomps around in cowboy boots. It takes her a long time to confront what happened with Dan and even then it’s “spurred” by being with her family and back in Wisconsin.

        Miss B. liked Ben a lot too: he was more real and more convincing, though Miss B. has the feeling that their relationship will always be of Ben taking care of May. At least, when she thinks there’s no getting back with Ben, May decides, on her own, to return to NYC. Thank you for commenting!

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        • I think one of my problems with the Knox books I’ve read is that her single women don’t feel like any single women I’ve ever known. They do not just do stupid things, but things that I struggle to make sense of, i.e., what is the kind of thought process that would lead to X behavior? And I’m consistently stumped. I don’t have a problem with the occasional stupid act, because we all do that.

          And it’s not because they’re not like me, but rather because they don’t resemble any of the many, many, single women *types* I’ve come across either. There’s only so much suspension of disbelief I can manage.

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          • Yes! I haven’t read many of her books and although I like her voice, I haven’t completely loved the books. I think you have just explained to me why. 🙂

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          • You’re right: the women especially do break down (though Miss B. would defend the first two books as more balanced and interesting). It’s important for Knox to create characters that break molds and break out into behaviour the opposite of what she deems negative patterns … but what they “end up” actually doing often seems to Miss B. too as counter-productive. And then, because they have to return to some semblance of normality, their “break out” behaviour looks even worse. Maybe it’d be better if Knox stuck to being York and writing “New Adult” (what an awful designation), Miss B. can’t say that she’d prefer to read her as York, but maybe the heroine’s behaviour, because she’s young, and we expect the young to behave stupidly (though it’s a stereotype and often temperament dictates otherwise), it’s easier to forgive, if not excuse? 😉

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    • In a way, it’s unavoidable: writers, including bloggers/reviewers, have a method and a theory that underlies their interpretation. In a way that is the subjective thing that goes on all the time with anything … but fiction, at least, should show and not tell that angle/stance. So mouthpieces boring; mouthing off in dialogue = better 😉

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  4. I have been thinking about the “mouthpiece” point. There have been some interesting pieces at Wonkomance related to this (like MaryAnn Rivers’ post a year or so ago about a book having an “argument” for the romance, or Amber Belldene’s on a romance novel having a hidden sermon–which I didn’t actually read but saw links to). And apparently at least one scholar is thinking about this too–just read this at Teach Me Tonight:

    http://teachmetonight.blogspot.ca/2014/10/noted-with-interest-creed-of-romance.html

    And these are hardly the only examples. I often find these ideas interesting because I am a very thematically-minded reader, especially in my professional mode (what is this book really “about”?). But I also think that if an author becomes too self-conscious about having a theme/argument/message/whatever, it can backfire and the book feels didactic. Ideally you get a more subtle and open exploration of a theme–more questions than answers.

    Anyway, given that Knox is part of the Wonkomance crowd, this seemed relevant, maybe. Is it partly how she conceptualizes her work that creates this “mouthpiece” feeling? Maybe.

    I am increasingly dubious about making the argument that the genre has “a creed.” The last thing we want is for themes/ideas to be carved in stone. “You can’t say that in a romance novel! It’s not part of the creed!” Maybe it’s better for writers not to be too self-conscious about what they’re up to. I don’t know.

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    • Thank you so much for that link. Miss B. usually reads Teach Me Tonight, but her blog-reading ebbs during the work-heavy months … oh, for it to be mid-July again 🙂

      Miss B., like you, likes to read for theme, or idea, she prefers them however to be implicit in the narrative, rather than explicit. Truly and so many of Knox’s recent novels start out so well: so quirky and interesting, but lapse into “mouthpiece-dom” or preachiness, or political correctness. In a way, Miss B. appreciated Knox’s York incarnation in Harder and Deeper because her axe to grind was declarative. Miss B. knew it and accepted, so she doesn’t know why there’s less satisfaction to Truly and the Camelot series: maybe because there’s the confusion of starting out one way, subtle, and ending up somewhere else. And thematically, Knox wants to convey the variety, or ambiguity of life and choice, but it’s as if wanting a life of order and calm won’t do to be able to live that truth. Miss B. will have to echo you again and say she doesn’t know.

      Those nine essential elements … well, she’ll have to think about those, but there definitely something about them niggles. Regis she’s loved and finds the structure she sets up for the romance very useful. But these are thematic claims and some contradictory. She particularly leery of this idea of the romance positing the idea that it’s a man’s world and yet that contradicts the final statement about the heroine’s triumph. Or maybe Miss B. has misunderstood. Most most interesting, though.

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      • I agree that something worked better in Deeper (I haven’t read Harder yet.) I’m not sure it was actually less declarative though… perhaps it came across better in first person? (It was in first person, right?) Or maybe it was the fact that it was so effectively dismantling NA stereotypes.

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        • Miss B. would say that it knew it was declarative: York wanted to write about revenge porn and with that as a focal point, everything else was given free rein. The point about it being in the first-person is an excellent one: limited narration helps to make that one woman’s experience and perspective, but also more “believable”? acceptable to the reader. Miss B. had never thought it dismantled NA stereotypes, but you are so RIGHT! And that is SO INTERESTING! Especially in West and his non-alpha ways coupled with his total alpha demeanor. As a matter of fact, there’s a great start to Harder (and you should read it, if you can) where Caroline notices how meaner and tougher he looks … and it’s NOT attractive. Miss B. won’t say more for fear of spoiling it for you …

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  5. …a theme dear to Knox: The discovery of the authentic self on the part of heroine and hero is worked out in the romantic relationship of desire, conflict, and love; push-back comes from their masked, or social selves and embedded family neuroses. Miss Bates must say she loves this about Knox and finds it endearingly American: the notion that authenticity is at the core of the self and the self can be remade in a more open, psychically healthier and happier way.

    I haven’t read Ruthie Knox (I have started one of her books), so this comment is less about this specific book, but about romance books in general and the idea of the authentic self.

    I would argue that the discovery of the authentic self — or rather, the expression of the authentic self (because sometimes characters know/feel who they want to be but feel unable to express themselves) — is at the heart of every romance book. I don’t think this idea is unique to her as an author. To me, it underpins the romantic conflict — true love is the safe space in which the h/h can express and fight for their true selves.

    It would be interesting to see what kind of happy endings we would get when authors start writing romance characters with very different value systems (I think urban fantasy touches on this a little, but it’s still not very diverse, I don’t think). For example, someone was telling me about Lone Wolf and Cub, a graphic novel featuring an assassin for hire, whose guiding principle is that he must execute his job no matter what, even if he has to execute someone he regards highly. In romance, the sense of duty attached to family or work is almost always seen as less valuable than the expression of self (via true love). In fact, these obligations are often used for conflict (family vs love, career vs love, etc.). I’d love to know how happy endings could be constructed when the primacy of full self-expression is put in question.

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    • Miss Bates would agree with you that the expression, in particular, of the authentic self is worked out in the romantic relationship. And, yes, the relationship is the safe place to express it; quite often, heroines in particular, though not exclusively, gain confidence in that expression and that is certainly true of May in Knox’s Truly. Miss doesn’t think, however, that all romance novels or novelists privilege it the way that Knox does and this creates a particular tension to her work that can render her characters mouthpieces. Ironically, Miss Bates guesses, as they gain their “authenticity,” they lose believability?

      One of her favourite manifestations of what you eloquently describe above is Daphne in Chase’s Mr. Impossible. Daphne’s scholarship and erudition come to the forefront because of Rupert’s marvelous, charming, and humorous support. Sigh. Miss Bates surely does love Rupert a lot. 😉

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