Former Lucky Peach executive editor Khong (All About Eggs: Everything We Know About the World’s Most Important Food, 2017) whisks up a heartfelt family dramedy in a debut novel that ruminates on love, loss, and memory.
Last June, Ruth Young was engaged and packing to move to a spacious apartment in Bernal Heights, San Francisco, when her fiance, Joel, broke the news that he wasn’t moving with her. Now 30, single, and still raw from the jarring breakup (and the gutting knowledge that Joel has a new, undoubtedly cooler, girlfriend), Ruth returns to her family’s home for the holidays. But instead of escaping her past, Ruth must face another obstacle upon arriving in Los Angeles—her father, esteemed history professor Howard Young, has Alzheimer’s disease, and it’s rapidly worsening. To alleviate her mother’s stress, Ruth quits her job in San Francisco—reluctantly joining “the unmarried and careerless boat”—and moves back in with her parents to care for her irascible father, who, notwithstanding his failing memory and bizarre behaviors (such as carrying a urinal cake in his pocket), insists he’s fine. Written in chronological vignettes spanning a year, Ruth’s vivid narration reads much like an intimate diary. In an effort to stave off her boredom at home, Ruth sleuths around her father’s unkempt office, digs for evidence of an extramarital affair, and even schemes with Howard’s former students to keep him under the illusion that he’s still actively teaching. As Howard’s memories fade, Ruth’s rise to the surface. Recollections of her father’s drinking problem and recent infidelity send her spiraling among resentment, disgust, and (unwittingly) compassion toward her parents. Ultimately, it’s Howard’s flaws that move Ruth to examine her own. Ruth and Howard are a hilarious father-daughter duo, at turns destructive and endearing, and entries from a notebook that Howard kept during Ruth’s childhood serve as an enriching back story to their deep bond.
Khong’s pithy observations and cynical humor round out a moving story that sparks empathy where you’d least expect it.