Sunday, October 30, 2016

Book Review: "Idaho" by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho, Emily Ruskovich's stunningly written debut novel, has an almost dreamy, elegiacal feel to it. It's a book that is about so many different things—the redemptive power of love and friendship, the burdens of loss and secrets, finding the strength to forgive yourself, the fragility of the mind and memory, and how long to maintain hope in the face of great uncertainty. This is a book that is both sad and happy, with characters and situations which will stay in your mind and take up space in your heart.

Years ago, Wade and Jenny married and moved to a small town in Idaho, where they lived on top of a mountain. It was a challenging existence, but one made brighter by their two adolescent daughters, June and May. Yet one seemingly typical day, when the four of them were collecting wood, in a split second everything changed. Their family is torn apart, and Jenny winds up in prison.

Ann, who moved back to Idaho from her home in Europe, is a music teacher in the school June attends. Wade begins taking music lessons from her, and she is touched by his dedication to his studies, even though music doesn't come easy to him at his age. A few months into their lessons, she hears about the tragedy that has befallen his family, and expects never to see him again, yet he returns a few months later. She is moved by his disclosure that he is beginning to suffer from the early onset of dementia, a disease that affected both his father and his grandfather. When they get married, it is both out of love for Wade and for the desire to protect and care for him.

As with any family member living with dementia, life with Wade is full of both beautiful and difficult moments. Ann tries to soothe Wade's panic but at times inadvertently puts herself at risk. In an effort to try and provide stability for her husband, she also tries to understand what happened that afternoon with Wade, Jenny, and their girls, and tries to understand how everything changed so quickly. But the more that she tries to decipher the clues and Wade's sporadic recollections, the more she begins wondering what her role might have been in all that occurred.

Idaho isn't told in a linear way—it moves from past to present and back again, and shifts perspectives between Ann, Wade, and Jenny, as well as a few other peripheral characters. At times you feel you're gaining clarity, but like memories in real life, they shift and change, and you're never entirely sure what recollections are true and which are embellished nuggets of truth. That works for this book but if you're a person who likes to have a full understanding of plot points, you might find it frustrating.

I felt that this book moved really, really slowly, and the narrative shifting of time and perspective confused me a bit. I felt there was one character in particular who made a few brief but key appearances in the book really served to muddy the waters for me a little further. But in the end, why this book works so well is the absolute beauty of Ruskovich's storytelling. Here's just one example:

"She can never look right at his disease. It is always in her periphery, pulling at the corners of her understanding. She has never been able to find the right questions, to pin down his illness in a way she can understand. The same old questions come to the surface once again."

This is a moving, memorable, well-written book, and it marks the debut of an author with incredible promise, someone I'll add to my ever-growing list of authors for whose next work I wait impatiently.

NetGalley and Random House provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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