Cathi Hanauer’s book takes an age-old theme, adultery, and turns it into a gripping page-turner of a novel. Sweet Ruin introduces us to 35 year old Elayna, a work-at-home editor who is just crawling out of a two-year depression after the death of her infant son, Oliver. Her husband, Paul, is a benign, but absent figure, someone who is clearly burying his own grief in his work as a lawyer. Their six-year-old daughter, Hazel, is intelligent and demanding.
“…that brilliant April, after rain had soaked us all March, it felt to me as if the earth and the plants, the insects and trees just couldn’t stay in their pants,” Elayna observes. And from the ruin of her life, Elayna begins to emerge and just as she does she meets, Kevin, a much younger boy-man who lives across the street.
It would be easy to find fault with Elayna- after all, she loves her husband and her daughter and has, what appears to be a perfect life. But Hanauer asks us to imagine Elayna as a woman who has lost more than a child; she’s lost, in a life filled with bossy caregivers and schedules dictated by a busy child and workaholic husband, some essential part of herself. It’s almost impossible not to relate to her.
And as Elayna’s relationship with Kevin skirts closer and closer to something from which there will be no turning back, it’s hard not to be swept along. Partly it has to do with Hanauer’s beautiful prose and partly it has to do with how carefully she builds Elayna’s world. Either way, it was impossible to put this book down because even though the it tells an age-old story, it felt new and heartbreaking to me.