Book Review: Ruth

Ruth

“Are women born or are they made in the process of living as women?”

As a topic, gender transitioning can be a hot potato. Add to this my personal antipathy towards reading graphic descriptions of sexual activity and Ruth, by Guillem Viladot (translated by P. Louise Johnson), may not have been my first choice of book. When it arrived through my door I set it aside, considering whether I wished to risk reading a story I may not enjoy. In the end two things appealed: it is published by a press I respect for putting out works that differ from the cookie cutter mainstream; it is epistolary, a format which, when done well, can be eminently engaging.

The correspondence through which the tale is told is entirely one sided. A short prelude details how the writer met the recipient. There is no indication if the letters that follow are welcomed.

The eponymous Ruth was baptised Raül, the second child of parents wealthy enough to support her through art college and beyond, when she worked as a sculptor. From a young age Ruth preferred the company of girls to boys. She wished to dress like them, something that appalled her mother.

“Because mother’s carry and give birth to their children, they seem to think they have the right to treat them as their property”

In order to become physically what Ruth believes she has always been, medical intervention is desired. When examined she is declared intersex – she has an underdeveloped penis but the smooth, hairless skin of a female. It is her wish to undergo surgery to remove the unwanted appendage and attain a vagina. She takes medication that causes her breasts to grow and seeks out sex as the female she presents as.

“my whole raison d’être is reduced to coitus”

The letters detail her encounters with men and women, describing explicitly their kisses, caresses and penetrations. There is a great deal of sex leading to multiple orgasms. Given the subject being explored this offered a degree of exploration into what it means to be a man or a woman. There is also the emotional difficulty of living in a body that does not fully reflect one’s identity.

Although Ruth’s mother is brutally callous in her reaction to her child’s gender transition, the sister is supportive, as are various friends including lovers. One of these, a young man Ruth enjoys her first sexual relations with, warns her when she falls in love with another.

“your emotional attachment is likely to be more complex because your femininity originates in the rejection of your male nature rather than in the affirmation of a natural femaleness”

Ruth proves quick to anger when challenged yet appears to avoid many of the more hurtful encounters that may, sadly, be expected. When her penis is discovered by potential lovers it is mostly regarded with fascination. The medical professionals who treat her are supportive and admiring of her superficial beauty. Ruth writes in vivid detail of her complex thoughts and experiences, exhibiting and describing body parts that are more often kept private. Her looks and those of others appear to matter to her more than less facile attributes.

A fascinating work of fiction offering much to consider on an issue currently garnering heated debate. Not always a pleasant read given its sexually graphic content but one it would be good to discuss with someone more directly knowledgeable. Whatever one’s views may be this is a poignantly challenging and lingering read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fum d’Estampa

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Book Review: The Longbourn Letters

The Longbourn Letters: The Correspondence Between Mr Collins and Mr Bennet, by Rose Servitova, is an epistolary novel that imagines how these two men’s friendship may have developed and continued after Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice drew to its happy conclusion. The preface summarises the original story and explains why the author chose to write the book. There then follows a prologue offering an explanation of how such letters may have come to light. I am a tad wary of authors taking a much loved story and writing beyond it but this section, the prologue, was the only part of the novel that I found unconvincing – and unnecessary. The heart is the letters and they provide entertaining and worthwhile reading.

Presented in date order and divided into the seven years during which the two men correspond, the first two years include the timeframe in which Pride and Prejudice is set. Mr Collins writes to Mr Bennet offering an ‘olive branch’ in his desire to end a family breach and visit with his cousin. Subsequent letters offer a commentary on events from each of the men’s perspectives. There are references to Mr Collins’ matrimonial rejection by Elizabeth Bennet and subsequent engagement to Charlotte Lucas. The author perfectly captures the voices of the men – Mr Collins’ pomposity and the delight Mr Bennet takes in mocking this without the other realising.

At times Mr Collins’ well intentioned advice stings to the extent that Mr Bennet responds with less candour. A further breach of friendship occurs as a result but this is eventually healed.

The impression is given that the women in the tale exchange letters regularly, thereby sharing the minutae of their lives which they pass on in subsequent conversations. The two men write a mere handful of letters each year, usually to acknowledge significant events or arrange to meet. Thus the content is on point – marriages and births along with asides on reading recommendations and mildly competitive updates on hobbies such as gardening. Mr Collins is by far the greater gossip, especially as regards his standing at Rosings and news of his patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mr Bennett obviously delights in such updates and encourages his friend to reveal all the juicy details.

Although at times there are little barbs and asides, the relationship between the men is one of warmth and increasing affection. Their characters remain true to Jane Austen’s creations. It is interesting to read of how the Bennet girls’ lives develop but the story’s strength is that it focuses on the men who love and support them.

It is also interesting to consider the lives of the independently wealthy in Georgian times. The intrigues, gossip, frustrations and highlights are well portrayed. This though is a tale of a friendship, one that ebbs and flows but ultimately enriches. Recommended to all who enjoyed Pride and Prejudice, it is a warm, humorous and engaging read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.