Novel November


by Carolyn Lee Adams

Reading Review by Michael Channing

Ruthless By Carolyn Lee Adams

Full disclosure: I know the author of this book. We've shared the stage at many comedy shows, and she's been on my trivia show. But none of that has done anything to steer the direction of this review. And while I'm at it let me go ahead and give you a warning, I'm going to spoil the ending of this book. That will be at the end of the review, and I'll give you another chance to close out this page before I dive into it. But for now, let's talk about Ruthless with zero danger of spoilers.

Brief aside: What constitutes a spoiler exactly? Giving away the ending or any surprise twists, obviously, but is that all? I feel knowing anything about some books or movies ruins the excitement of discovery. You may want to start cold, with no knowledge at all of the premise or plot. Think of how strange and discomforting Taxi Driver or Barton Fink would be if you had no foreknowledge of the film before pressing play. The stories start on one level and deepen slowly till they become something else completely. Knowing ahead of time that Travis Bickel's ham-fisted attempt to rescue a child hooker will end in a bloodbath ruins the surprise that the film truly seems to want to hold close to its chest. And don't even get me started on Barton Fink. That's a film you should know nothing about on your first viewing. Trust me. So what I'm asking is, while I'm going to talk about things that are printed on the cover flap or that show up within the first few pages or chapters of this book, am I still spoiling what might otherwise be an exciting reveal? That's a risk any review has to take. So always: beware. Aside over.

Despite its title, this book has plenty of Ruth in it. Ruth is the protagonist, a privileged, driven, judgmental young girl. She is a horse rider, used to winning, used to exerting control over her steed and her employees and friends. Uppity is a word some might use to describe her. One man in particular thinks Ruth needs to be taught a lesson and makes it his mission to bring her down a few pegs.

As the book begins, Ruth wakes up in the back of a pickup truck, beaten and bound, unsure of where she's going, unable to remember how she got where she is. She's been kidnapped. When she first meets her abductor face-to-face, he engages her in a Silence of the Lambs-style confrontation, he attempting to break her psychologically and she trying to maintain her usual mask of control. This doesn't last all that long and doesn't really come to a conclusion.

That's one of the flaws of this book. It continually shifts gears. Just when you think this is going to be a psychological battle of wills, it becomes an escape story. Then it's a survival story, then it's a chase, then it's a revenge story. Don't get me wrong, I like variety, but the separate sections don't always come to a satisfying close. But the story often takes a surprising turn that draws you back in.

One of those tantalizing threads is the interwoven back stories of Ruth and her tormentor, whom she calls the Wolfman. We see Ruth grow from middle schooler to teen, learning the ropes of show riding, getting a taste for winning, becoming ashamed of her lower-class friends, and acting all around bratty. Of course, we're supposed to root for her survival and escape, but knowing what we do about her attitude toward her friends and the farmhands at her parents' ranch, we might hope she makes it out alive, we just don't like her all that much. The Wolfman, however, comes off surprisingly sympathetic. We see him try to build a family but fail. We witness him act selflessly, then we see him start down the path of killer and rapist. It's kind of disturbing to get such conflicting and nontraditional views of the two main characters.

Ruth might not be a great pal, but she is a fighter. She's driven by her need, in her words, “to win.” It's not just survival she's after, she wants to prove herself stronger than her captor. She wants him to lose. She does this not only for herself, but for the memory of the other victims Wolfman has taken over the years. But she still wants the personal glory that comes with winning. Again we get an unsettling mix of altruism and egoism. We really do want Ruth to escape, we just wish she'd stop basking in her own accomplishments.

Ruth's ability to adapt to and survive in new surroundings is continually tested throughout the book. One victory leads to another defeat, and she has to push herself harder. She takes pride in her stamina, her mental fortitude. These have served her well in her profession, but again and again she is bested by the Wolfman. He becomes not only a monster but her crucible. If Ruth hopes to live through the Wolfman, she must allow him to change her.

Now I want to discuss the ending. So if you want to read the book yourself, which of course I urge you to do, and discover the ending on your own, turn back. Beyond this point, there be spoilers.

Spoiler Pig

Ruth gets the drop on Wolfman, shooting him in the back at close range with a pistol. There are more pages remaining than any denouement would require, so Wolfman's return isn't that much of a surprise itself. He nabs Ruth, tosses her in a car, drags her to a field to finish his kill. She's so close to salvation. She can see a convenient store up ahead and hears cop cars approaching. If she can just fight Wolfman a few more minutes, she can make it. But she knows he'll overpower her. He's determined to end her even if it means guaranteeing his own capture. So she does the only thing she can. She plays dead. Wolfman is so convinced that he buries her in a pit. He shovels dirt onto her face, and Ruth fights the urge to blink. The girl who values winning above all else must give up and be defeated in order to save herself. In order to continue to be anything at all, she has to become nothing. Just a few pages previous we saw Ruth floating triumphantly downriver in what should have been a standard baptismal/rebirth moment, but it's not till she's pulled out of the ground like a resurrected corpse that she truly allows change into her heart. It's a great ending, the right ending. Ruth is grating for a good part of the book, prideful, conceited, cocky. Going limp against every instinct, every self-taught survival mechanism she has, Ruth is truly humbled, truly changed. Ruthless is Adams' first book, and it's flawed. But the ending she chose is perfect.

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