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.