BookBrowse Reviews Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

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Idaho

A Novel

by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich X
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2017, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2017, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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In lush language, this debut novel narrates the emotional reverberations of one horrific act—over the course of many years—on the lives of those affected.

Emily Ruskovich's prose is delicious, and reason enough to read Idaho. But paired with a mystery whose pages beg to be turned, the novel turns into an unusually compelling mixture of cerebral lyricism and emotional suspense. From the first paragraph Ruskovich settles the reader firmly in the lush wilds of Idaho, a character as much as any human in the story. Beauty and danger glint from different angles on each mountain rock, thick breezes carry sweet messages or acrid warnings depending on the day, the season, the memory. In these early pages we glean a vague composite of the novel's central crime: Wade, Jenny, and their two daughters on a mountain; blood sticky on the seat of a pickup truck; a frantic drive down from the top. As the novel unfolds the composite grows, filling in the years leading up to that day and the years trailing after. It's told through the perspective of multiple characters, but not one has the whole story.

We begin with Ann, Wade's second wife, nine years after that fateful event. Now early-onset Alzheimer's is ravaging Wade's memory, and in the wake of his changing personality Ann grows obsessed with discovering what he has now forgotten: exactly what happened that day on the mountain.

Ann has to imagine most of it, everything beyond the facts Wade told her or she heard on TV. She did try very hard during those early days to keep the radio and TV off, so that everything she knew she knew from Wade. What Wade wanted to tell her, she would keep. But she wouldn't let herself go searching; she wouldn't let herself ask.

But all of that is different now that Wade is forgetting. She wants to ask him if he and Jenny spoke, before his memory is lost for good. Did Jenny look out the side window or straight again? Or did she look at him?

And herein lies the tenderest turn of the novel: Ann's fervor is, at its root, simply that of a woman prying at the mystery of her husband's first love. Though within this emotional history is an unspeakable crime, at the heart of it is simply the mystery of Wade's love for Jenny, the mystery of Jenny herself, unknown and, now in prison, unknowable. In the beginning, the passages written from Ann's perspective circle around Wade's daughters, secretly reconstructing a past she was never part of. But as the story progresses and Ann digs deeper, she focuses increasingly on Jenny, until that very search becomes her salvation.

The pace is pleasurably slowed by fragmented passages that follow Wade into his early years with Jenny, building a house on a remote mountaintop: "They lay up in the barn loft at night and their plans rose out of their mouths and hovered there in the pine rafters like a dream of owls." These are interspersed with glimpses of the girls, May and June, their fraught sisterhood and the everyday cruelties of childhood: "Her words rise out of her as if boiled in tears."

Savoring sentences like these, I found myself re-reading passages for clues I might have missed, plumbing them for subtle hints of what I might be able to discover if I looked carefully enough. I fought off the urge to rifle through the pages for answers. And I found myself frustrated, stuck knee-deep in memories that Ann had recreated so vividly they might have been her own, but none the wiser. It wasn't until after I finished the last page that I realized that my experience as the reader mirrors Ann's. She has all the facts—just as the reader does from the opening pages. What she's searching for is everything in between—the motivations, desires, and most secret inner-life of a woman that will to her be forever unknowable. And this is the great challenge of this novel, just as it is for for Ann: to make up for the loss of that satisfaction.

After reading just the first ten pages, I wanted Idaho to be perfect, and after one hundred I was sure it could be. The craft of Ruskovich's descriptions, vital and lifting off the page, paired with her deft sense for unusual detail in the most secret emotional places makes for sentences, images, and feelings I'll always remember. But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed to find the second half didn't live up to my admittedly high expectations. The strength of the writing is diluted among all the characters, and the emotional arc meanders at a major plot point in Ann's search. Ultimately, the redemptive bow that ties up the end is rushed and emotionally incomplete, even if it feels right. I can't help but admit how sad I was that it wasn't the novel I wanted it to be. But I'll forever be grateful for the gift of the parts that glittered and shimmered throughout, evidence of what language can be in the hands of a truly gifted writer.

Reviewed by Lucia Silva

This review was originally published in March 2017, and has been updated for the November 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Idaho—A Nonsense Name?

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