As this novel by Rachel Khong begins, it’s Christmas, and Ruth is spending her first Christmas in years with her family. Her fiancé has recently dumped her for another woman, and she’s been bouncing from one relationship to another. And now that her father’s Alzheimer’s is starting to set in, Ruth’s mother wants her to stay and help her cope with the coming crisis. And so she does.
The book takes the form of diary entries, written over the course of the year Ruth lives with her parents. So it’s very in the moment as they deal with her father’s illness and make plans for what comes next. For most of the book, dealing means setting up fake classes for her father, a college professor to teach now that his erratic behavior has cost him his job. The classes in California history, held in various locations from week to week and attended by former students and friends, keep him going. And, I think, keeping the deception going gives Ruth something to think about, too. She has this scary situation in front of her and this momentary solution to manage from day to day, so she doesn’t have time to wallow in the future or the past.
In the end, the book is very much about living in the moment that you have. Both Ruth and her mother have been betrayed by the men they love, and there’s not much to be done to make things right. Ruth’s relationship is over, her mother’s relationship goes on. Ruth’s brother, Linus, also feels betrayed, by Ruth who left home just before her parents’ marriage went sour and by his father, who drank and had affairs through most of Linus’s adolescence. It’s no wonder he’s doesn’t much want to be around now.
Ruth’s own feelings are hard to work out for most of the book. She mostly seems numb, just taking things one step at a time and not giving much thought to anything. When her mother asks her to stay, she stays. When her father’s colleague cooks up the wacky teaching scheme, she goes along. But I think that’s exactly how she gets through. She just keeps taking the next step. As the book goes on, those steps get a little more purposeful. And by the end, she’s ready to appreciate where she is and step forward into the future.
I should also mention that this book is frequently funny. Ruth’s fathers actions, while worrying, are sometimes played for comedy — because what else is there to do but laugh and then keep going? And take notes, notice, see the world around you. That’s really what drives this book, the need to notice. Ruth’s father preserved notes from her childhood of the things she did, and now Ruth does the same for her father. And somehow, that action of noticing makes it all bearable because it becomes easier to see the joy of the moment instead of focusing on the pain of the future and the past.