Monday, June 28, 2010
The Away Place
In the lobby of the Lakewood Playhouse before a production on “The Grapes of Wrath” Artistic Director Marcus Walker introduced me to local novelist Ruth Tiger. We struck up a conversation and a few days later met at a Starbucks to swap books and talk about writing. Right off the bat she struck me as the real deal, and her novel, The Away Place, convinced me I was right about her.
It’s a good book, a simple and engaging story told without gimmicks or pretention.
The Away Place is about Sarah, an idealistic and ambitious, if somewhat naive, graduate student in the 1970s whose graduate project is to open an experimental halfway house for developmentally challenged men. This was at a time when people with Downs Syndrome, autism, mental illness and other emotional or mental problems were locked away and given little if any treatment – out of sight, out of mind, what treatment they were given often more harmful than helpful.
Sarah is convinced that if given proper love and care they can be trained to re-enter society and live on their own. She immediately falls in love with one of the higher-functional Downs Syndrome patients, John – but then who wouldn’t fall in love with John? Seldom has a character been written with such empathy. Sarah is also a little bit enamored of her professor, William, who is a manipulative womanizer who takes female students under his supervision and into his bed and then abandons them if they refuse to sleep with him.
Sarah’s struggle to make her home-care experiment successful is a constant fight against a system and a society that doesn’t want her to succeed.
Ruth Tiger’s writing style draws the reader in. She makes you identify with and feel for her characters. I wanted so very much for Sarah to succeed, for John to find love and acceptance, for William to drop dead; and frankly, I wanted to strangle Ricky, the most destructive and self-destructive of the men in the home. These and many more characters become real, and you can’t help becoming invested in the outcomes of their many adventures.
The one drawback, typical perhaps of a first novel, is that there’s a twist at the end that’s both predictable and contrived; but that didn’t keep me from loving this book.