A loose-jointed first novel of a woman, from an eccentric family, whose life ends up unfocused.
Though Pritchard’s chronology is nimbly kaleidoscopic throughout, the opening sections are where we get most of the pleasures here, and learn most of what we’ll know about Ruby Jean Reese and family (“a buncha crackpots,” says a childhood friend). Both of Ruby’s parents (her father is an explosives expert) are musically educated, though her mother remains far the more flamboyant: when she can’t sleep, she goes outdoors in the middle of the night and plays her violin, neighbors looking out their windows (“We could see her . . . blue robe and long black braids. Around and around the cherry tree she’d walk . . .”). Somehow, though, less and less seems to happen—happen meaningfully—as the story goes forward from those days in the 1950s and early ’60s. Ruby’s sister Albertine is smart, studious, and amusing. A friend named Etherine is pale, sickly, and will die. Older brother Mason starts out with the promise of extraordinary talent but settles for being a pharmacist, then a drunk, finally a ruin. The feckless Ruby herself will go to college, marry three men—disaster every time—and keep on talking and talking about it to the bitter end, filling endless pages with passages about other “eccentric” or “unforgettable” places and people—friends, neighbors, husbands, herself—until, as one reads, nothing seems to pass but time. With effortful allusions to the new millennium and YK2 fears made as if to up the ante of significance by some means, the end does finally come, Ruby by then a nervous wreck, with heart palpitations, even now still finding comfort (unlike the reader) in reciting yet again her favorite words from childhood (“ASPEN, TAFFETA, WORCESTERSHIRE, NINCOMPOOP . . .”).
Ursula Hegi provides a laudatory preface, but, in spite of its separately captivating moments, Pritchard’s debut (a Bakeless Prize winner) doesn’t develop—or gain power—so much as just keep on going.