Book 57: Robin And Ruby by K.M. Soehnlein, isbn 9780758232182, 276 pages, Kensington, $24.00
When I finished reading Soehnlein's THE WORLD OF NORMAL BOYS back in 2000, I was satisfied with the ending to a book I absolutely loved and was moved by. I knew the characters must go on to live their lives, but I wasn't clamoring for a sequel. So when I found out Soehnlein had written ROBIN AND RUBY, my first thought was "did you really need to go back to that well?" Upon reading the book, I'm glad he did.
R&R finds Robin MacKenzie now 20 years old, a college student working his summer away in Philadelphia alongside his childhood friend George and knee-deep in a relationship with a slightly older man that you know right away is just not working out. Robin's sister Ruby is now in high school, dating a boy who also doesn't seem quite right for her. She accompanies him to a party house on the Jersey Shore and a chance encounter with a boy from her past sets her off on a path that brings Robin and George to the Shore to find her.
Soehnlein does what I think is a wonderful job summarizing the earlier book, which took place when Robin was fourteen. The events of that book, surrounding Robin's homosexuality and the injury/death of his younger brother Jackson, haunt this book. We are never really free of our past, and Soehnlein works that idea into the novel without letting it completely overwhelm the story. Robin and Ruby's thoughts drift back to how Jackson's death affected them, how they've never really gotten out from under the shadow of being "Coma Boy's" siblings, how far apart their family has drifted thanks to divorce after Jackson's death. But the story itself propels on something completely different: the lives Robin and Ruby now lead, the fears and hopes they hold. At it's heart, ROBIN AND RUBY is a relationship drama: sexual relationships, creative relationships, familial relationships, and friendships. Robin's break-up with Peter and the changes in best friend George interweave with Robin's connection to Ruby's scriptwriting rich boyfriend Calvin; Calvin's connection to Robin reveals things about his personality to Ruby; the weekend at Calvin's sister's rented Shore house show Robin things about both herself and the life she would lead if she stayed in love with Calvin. And then there's the mystery boy from Ruby's past who brings memories of who she was after Jackson died compared with who she has become. NORMAL BOYS was told exclusively from Robin's point of view; Soehnlein rightly alternates sections of this book from both Robin and Ruby's points of view, the switching-back-and-forth happening more frequently as the book moves towards its conclusion.
Soehnlein also has a nice attention to period detail. I remembered that from NORMAL BOYS, where he sprinkled enough late 70s pop culture references to firmly root you in the era without being over-the-top. He does the same thing here for the early 80s: songs heard on the car radio or in the club bring back, for me at least, memories of where I was in those years.
I actually now find myself hoping, in a few years' time, that Soehnlein will write another book with these characters, showing us where they are as they move into the 90s.