Summary and book reviews of The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton

The Book of Ruth

by Jane Hamilton

The Book of Ruth
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  • First Published:
    Jun 1988, 328 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 1989, 336 pages

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Book Summary

A stunning testament to the human capacity for mercy, compassion, and love.

"I learned, slowly, that if you don't look at the world with perfect vision, you're bound to get yourself cooked." Having come within an inch of her life, Ruth Dahl is determined to take a good look at it—and to figure out whether, in fact, she's to blame for the mess. Pegged the loser in a small-town family that doesn't have much going for it in the first place, Ruth grows up in the shadow of her brilliant brother, trying to survive in a world of poverty and hardship. Matt's brain is his ticket out of Honey Creek. Ruth, without options, cleaves instead to her tough, half-crazy mother, May, and eventually to Ruby, the sweet but slightly deranged young man she loves, marries, and supports. Ruth spots stains at Trim 'N Tidy dry cleaners, bowls at the Town Lanes, and tries in vain to keep the peace at home between May, whose lashing criticisms blow through the cramped house with gale force, and Ruby, who spends his days getting stoned and watching reruns of Bewitched on television. When the precarious household erupts in violence, Ruth is the only one who can piece their story together—and she gets to the truth in a manner at once ferocious, hilarious, and heartbreaking.

In this powerful, incandescent novel, Jane Hamilton has worked a small miracle: she has given voice to a young woman who is indistinguishable except for her passion in her commitment to life. The Book of Ruth is a stunning testament to the human capacity for mercy, compassion, and love.

Winner of the 1989 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for best first novel.

One

What it begins with, I know finally, is the kernel of meanness in people's hearts. I don't know exactly how or why it gets inside us; that's one of the mysteries I haven't solved yet. I always tried to close my eyes and believe that angels, invisible in their gossamer dresses, were keeping their loving vigil. I learned, slowly, that if you don't look at the world with perfect vision, you're bound to get yourself cooked. Even though I may still be looking through the dark glass, even though I haven't finished learning the lessons, I'm the only one who tells the story from beginning to end. It can't be up to Ruby, because he has been spirited away and born again. Neither love nor prayer can bring him back. May can talk herself blue in the face and no one will hear. By rights this belongs to Justy, because he inherits the earth for a short time, but he doesn't quite count yet. He'll remember the taste of pecan balls, exactly how the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Ruth's story is particularly poignant because of the way she conveys so much that is beyond her understanding. What are the differences between what Ruth tells us and what we infer about her life and the people in it? How does Hamilton achieve this?
  2. How do you respond to Ruth's naiveté? Is her lack of understanding about the people in her life frustrating? Or does her innocence make her a more sympathetic character?
  3. May is in many ways a monstrous character in Ruth's life. What about her is human and invokes our sympathy? Are there any similarities between May and Ruth?
  4. How does Ruth get caught between May and Ruby? Does Justy's birth improve the situation for her at all?
  5. ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews

New York Times Book Review

Ms. Hamilton gives Ruth a humble dignity and allows her hope--but it's not a heavenly hope. It's a common one, caked with mud and held with gritted teeth. And it's probably the only kind that's worth reading about.

Boston Sunday Globe

A sly and wistful, if harrowing, human comedy. Hamilton is a new and original voice in fiction and one well worth listening to.

People

An extraordinary story of a family's disintegration... Will be compared to Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres. Astonishingly vivid and moving.

Entertainment Weekly

An enthralling tale of guilt, betrayal, and the terrifying ways our lives.

Glamour

Hamilton's story builds to a shocking crescendo. Her small-town characters are a appealingly offbeat and brushed with grace as any found in Alice Hoffman's or Anne Tyler's novels.

Vogue

An American beauty this book... The narrator of Jane Hamilton's sensational first novel is a holy lusty innocent.

Publishers Weekly

In her first novel, Hamilton takes on a challenge too large for her talents....[she] evokes Ruth's character marvelously, but others as seen by her are incompletely rendered.

Kirkus Reviews

Unforgettably, beat by beat, Hamilton maps the best and worst of the human heart and all the mysterious, uncharted country in between.

Reader Reviews

Carolyn

The Book of Ruth
Ms. Hamilton creates a believable narrator in Ruth; Ruth breaks our hearts and teaches us about her life in north central Illinois during the 1970's. The location can be seen as a character as well. I used this novel in an Illinois Literature ...   Read More

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