Where is the line between self and other? Is the good of the one ever more important than the good of the many? High falutin’ philosophers have explored those questions for centuries, and plenty of college students scratch their heads over why they are questions in the first place. Isn’t it obvious? I am here. You are there. The rest is politics.
Those pat beliefs rested easy for me until I became a mother. But something about having a baby throws a big fat spotlight on exactly those questions. Where indeed is the actual, physical line between a pregnant woman and her unborn baby? And childbirth doesn’t answer the question. When a baby is sucking on your breasts night and day and a man is using your body for his own physical pleasure and you’re exhausted and starving and living in a body you don’t recognize . . . well, let’s just say the distinction between self and other can get pretty blurry.
Later, as the children grow older and you reclaim your body and your life and your relationships, you have a chance to draw the line again. But where? When is a mother’s sanity and happiness more important than her family’s? Cathi Hanauer’s new novel, Sweet Ruin explores the dilemma that every mother confronts eventually: the conflict between her own needs and her family’s. Although most mothers aren’t propositioned by gorgeous younger men who bake cookies for their kids, all of us are pulled by longing of some sort, and it often conflicts with the needs of our families. Sweet Ruin is a compelling portrayal of how one woman tries to balance her own desires with her commitment to family.
When I heard that Hanauer had written a novel exploring the conflicts of marriage and motherhood, I was excited — until a pink book landed on my doorstep. On the one hand, I’ve been a fan of Hanauer’s since her top-notch book review days at the now defunct Mademoiselle Magazine. And her best-selling anthology of essays, The Bitch in the House, only cemented my admiration. I was a new mother who’d lost her footing when I read Bitch, whiplashing between joy and despair, gratitude and fury. Bitch was the first in a string of mothering books that were my lifeline in those early days.
On the other hand, I have a wary relationship with pink books. I like them in my beach bag. I do not like them on my bookshelf. I think pink when I want to read about the romantic adventures of a single woman in her late twenties, her glamorous but low-paying editorial job, and her tiny but cute apartment in Manhattan (invariably the case in chick lit). With its sexy photo of a bare shoulder on a pink background, Sweet Ruin looked like a grown up version of the same tired theme. And the jacket copy didn’t promise much more: “Elayna is typical of women who spend their twenties chasing dreams in the city only to spend their thirties chasing children in the suburbs.”
Could it be? Had Cathi Hanauer, the Bitch herself, written Hen Lit? Did my idol have feet of cotton candy?
On the surface, yes. Before marriage, our heroine lived in a small apartment in Manhattan and worked as a low-level copy chief for a trendy magazine. Sounds familiar. Now she is 35, married and living in the New Jersey suburbs, working as a freelance editor so she can be home with her young daughter. As for romantic adventures, meet Kevin, an attentive young artist who captures Elayna’s fancy in the absence of her workaholic lawyer husband.
How pleasantly surprised I was, then, to realize that Sweet Ruin is not just another sugary confection. As the story begins, Elayna Leopold is still grieving the death of her infant son two years earlier. Emotionally numb, she and her husband Paul cope with their loss in different ways: she slogs through each day while Paul disappears into his career. When Elayna emerges from grief to find an empty house and a lonely heart, it’s no surprise that she’s drawn to Kevin, who is genuinely sweet, not to mention gorgeous.
Will she or won’t she? If it were only her marriage at risk (and an unsatisfying one at that), the question would be easier to answer. But in fiction as in life, children complicate things. Elayna’s precocious daughter Hazel is seven, equally charmed by Kevin and missing her always-at-work father. She is also her mother’s joy, and when Elayna’s longings impair her judgment and put Hazel in danger, the choice between self and family is thrown into high relief.
Sweet Ruin is also an extended riff on the tyranny of monogamy. But in this respect, it’s a purely American story. Unlike many other cultures, American society demands that married couples remain monogamous or else. It’s an either/or proposition: either remain sexually faithful to your partner and keep your family, or stray to another bed and lose everything. This is the choice Elayna faces.
Hanauer’s ear for dialog is flawless and her sex scenes sizzle with the best of them. But her true strength is in her characters. As the mother of a six-year-old myself, I found Hazel to be funny, smart, and manipulative; a wonderful and realistic antidote to the cute cookie-cutter kids in most novels and movies. Elayna’s coolly appraising father feels predatory and all too believable. And although I wished for more complexity in Elayna’s husband Paul, his character is, after all, defined by his absence.
I was sad at the end of this book; not because the story ends on a down note, but because I will miss spending time with Elayna. It’s a testament to Hanauer’s abilities as a writer that Elayna became as real to me as any friend. Throughout the book, I found myself worrying about her. Should I call her? Would Hazel like to play with my son? Where the hell was Paul?
In Elayna, I saw myself, walking a tight wire between self and other, making a thousand small choices each day between taking care of myself and taking care of my family. But I also took to heart Elayna’s ultimate realization: that sometimes, our needs and our family’s needs are the same. In risking her family’s well being, Elayna realized she was also risking the very thing that mattered most to her. And while feeling desired and thrillingly alive was sweet indeed, it could only come at the cost of ruin.