In the River Sweet

Midlife crises are usually about re-examining a person’s marriage or career choices. Ruth Anne Bond’s summer of crisis is quite different. Happy in her marriage and her part-time library job, she is just settling into comfortable middle age when the fates turn on her.

The secret baby whom she gave up thirty years ago contacts her by email. Her daughter Laurel comes out as a lesbian, challenging Ruth Anne’s unexamined values. Her aunt Teensy who brought her up is dying. Her doctor advises her to give up the bicycle riding she loves for speed walking, because she may have brittle bones. All around her, friends seem to be abandoning Christianity for Buddhist meditation. Ruth Anne herself begins to doubt her lifelong Catholic faith.

Ruth Anne outwardly copes with all these changes with equanimity, even as doubts assail her. Things get worse. Someone goes from painting ugly “FAG CHURCH” messages on local churches to violently attacking Laurel and her lover. Ruth meets her son in person, but the memories the meeting conjures up are very difficult to face. When she tells her husband Johnny about Tin and the affair which produced him, their formerly solid marriage almost shatters. Johnny tries to catch Laurel’s assailant and ends up in jail himself. Everyone comes to a tentative peace in the end, but not without going through a lot of pain.

The characters’ emotional journeys ring true. Ruth Anne is a likable woman at the turning point of her adult life. Her story is a natural for the huge “women’s fiction” market. It’s strange that author Patricia Henley seems to be doing all she can to discourage such readers. With no quotation marks for dialogue, the whole story is viewed through a distancing screen. It functions like the dreary rain in wartime Saigon, to blunt reactions. There are also a number of implausible elements, like young Ruth wangling a trip to a war zone to mend books in a convent library. These quibbles aside, In the River Sweet is a fine piece of fiction that tells a thought-provoking tale.