I don’t think this is a perfect book, but I loved this story about a Puerto Rican family in Staten Island, New York. I found it a fantastic and moving first novel. The story revolves around the disappearance of Ruthy Ramirez, age 13, who never comes home after track practice. Ruthy’s mother, her older sister Jessica and her younger sister Nina are changed forever by her loss.
More than a decade later, Nina is a college graduate and has returned home when she and Jess see a girl on a reality show called Catfight. The girl, named Ruby, is about the same age Ruthy would be, and she has the same birthmark on her face. Jess and Nina are determined to find Ruby/Ruthy and bring her home.
Maybe let’s start the story this way: There is a girl. Her name is Ruthy Ramirez. You are that girl.
You have two sisters. You live on the north edge of Staten Island with your crazy-ass moms, your sisters, and your dad in a little pink town house. And after you turn thirteen, no one can control you.Claire Jimenez, What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez
This is less a book about Ruthy than it is about these three women, as the novel explores their determination, grief, and guilt over losing Ruthy. They have to move forward with their lives but in many ways, they can’t. Ruthy was a tough girl, and a secretive one, and she was at that age where a girl can have terrible secrets. They’ve pored over her diary, but in the end they don’t know if she ran from them or was taken.
Despite its very dark story, there’s also a surprising amount of humor. Mother Dolores has this crazy sidekick friend who goes into full-on seizures in church. Nina is forced to work in a cheesy lingerie store, folding thong underwear and pretending to speak Spanish. And Ruby is in a reality show where the girls are encouraged to tear each other apart – as the name suggests. In this regard, the humor is dark and pointed. Jimenez makes a pretty strong statement that these girls are being exploited and the messages that sends.
Some readers complained on Goodreads about the use of profanity but I wasn’t bothered by it; in fact the use of profanity made these characters feel more real to me, more raw. I also liked the use of language that I assume reflects the way a Puerto Rican family would talk to each other. Of course I wouldn’t know, but it felt authentic to me and that made the story more poignant.
I appreciated that Ruthy isn’t a sweet kid, because it forces you to think about the kinds of trouble that girls her age get into, and how police and the media look at families who go through this horrible experience. Not being “nice” makes her no less sympathetic.
Note: I received an advance review copy from NetGalley and publisher Grand Central Publishing. This book was published March 7, 2023.
That does sound a good one, I was worried it would be a bit TOO dark. People in America get bothered about swearing, don’t they – I was only saying the other day that the only time I used my old Kindle’s keyboard was to check for swearing in a book by a blog reader who asked!