"Ruby & Roland" by Faith Sullivan; Milkweed Editions (240 pages, $25)
Love in its many permutations is the theme of the latest novel by Minneapolis writer Faith Sullivan - familial love, parental love, but mostly romantic love, and tragic romantic love at that.
The book is populated with salt-of-the-earth, sensible characters - farm wives and schoolteachers and small-town merchants and cranky elderly aunts - and just about every one of them is hiding a broken heart.
Set in the early 1900s, "Ruby & Roland" is told in first person by Ruby Drake, orphaned at age 10 when her parents die in a blizzard. Her fanciful mother and handsome father were, she says, "too happy and devoted to live." And so it goes in this novel - the happy might die young, but everyone else just presses on, doomed love and heartbreak notwithstanding.
Ruby's voice is peppy and thoughtful - with her literary quotations and romantic flights of fancy, she brings to mind the character Anne Shirley from "Anne of Green Gables" - but this brief novel contains an awful lot of sadness.
After her parents' death, Ruby spends her teenage years working as a hired girl on the Schoonover farm outside of Harvester, the little Minnesota town where most of Sullivan's books are set. There she meets Roland Allen, the strapping young farmer across the road whose hair is white-blond and whose eyes are "the intense blue of bachelor's buttons."
But Roland is no bachelor - he is married to a town girl, the beautiful but self-absorbed Dora, who has just lost their first child and has taken to her bed in despair.
The attraction between Ruby and Roland is instantaneous and passionate. But would this relationship, if allowed to run its natural course, wither over time? Roland seems neither well-read nor particularly interesting, and Ruby's passion for him might well spring from a combination of loneliness, sexual attraction and romanticism.
But passion it is, and passion, Sullivan makes clear, is not to be discounted.
Ruby and Roland have a few ecstatic encounters, but then Dora's condition worsens and she grows suicidal. The Schoonovers dispatch Ruby to the Allen farm to help out. Now Ruby is at a crossroads. Will she choose love or duty? Selfishness or selflessness? Can she work in Dora's house and yet betray Dora with her husband?
In previous novels, Sullivan has excelled at bringing to life the rhythm of small towns, and in "Ruby & Roland" the labor and beauty of farm life dominate the story. The laundry, the egg-fetching, the milking, the "dusty with wheat chaff" farmhands, the hardworking, capable women - all make up a vivid world.
"The evening was going lavender," Sullivan writes. "Frogs croaked in the ditch, and in the trees cicadas whined." It seems an appealing place to live.
As the old saying goes, "The heart wants what the heart wants." And as you read Sullivan's tender novel, you sense it all around you - young people, old people, preachers, farmers, bankers, housewives and professors, all going about their stolid and serious lives. And underneath the surface they are wanting, wanting, wanting.
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