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Ruth & Pen by Emilie Pine

Dublin, October 7, 2019. Two women wake up to a new day in the old city. Ruth and Pen do not know each other, they are at vastly different points in their lives - but they are equally anxious this morning. Ruth is in her early forties, a counsellor who has worked hard for her career and her own practice. Today, her marriage is in crisis. She is waiting for Aidan to return from a business trip but is not sure whether he will actually come back, not even sure if she really wants him to. Years of trying to conceive and agonising cycles of IVF treatments and miscarriages have taken a toll on her body and their relationship. And now, when one of them is ready to give up trying and the other isn’t, the question whether they can hold on to their marriage weighs heavy on their minds.

And then there is Pen. Sixteen, about to skip school for the first time to attend a climate protest in central Dublin. Pen is autistic and crowded places tend to overwhelm her but that is not the only reason for her nervous morning. At the protest she is going to muster up the courage to tell her best friend Alice how she really feels. Pen struggles with words, vulnerability scares her and nothing could be worse than losing her one true friend. Still, there is not just fear, but excitement running through her veins as she gets ready to step out into the world.

Ruth and Pen may not know each other, but they cross paths on Dublin’s streets and their thoughts and worries mirror each other as the women grapple with how to relate to others and how to live in a world you just don’t seem to fit in.

Emilie Pine’s debut novel a tender tale of love and pain. She shows us the journey of navigating our inner lives when external realities and expectations don’t always match. Ruth & Pen is a study the of hope and grief of a cast of characters who are carefully crafted with astonishing sensitivity. Not only the eponymous women, but their friends and family are always taken seriously, flawed and human but loving and lovable as they face love’s challenges however big or small. Pine does an excellent job at showing, not telling, that we can never know what is going on in other’s lives and minds, and that we should meet everyone with compassion. The prose is fluid and well-crafted, sprinkled with lines of great beauty. What captivated me most was Dublin in these pages. Passages describing it’s old, winding streets and new, shining neighbourhoods in such loving detail, it feels as if a friend takes you be the hand and shows you around the city. I walked alongside Ruth, across the Liffey, through Temple Bar, past Trinity College and towards Merrion Square. I sat next to Pen on the Dart, looking out at the sea. Ruth & Pen is such a gentle novel, I hardly dare to criticise it in any way, though I do have to say that not all its chapter were equally strong. Perhaps because of that intelligent sensitivity with which Pine explores her characters minds, there were moments when the story lost some of its drive. By the end I was again captivated, rooting for these two women, courageously glimpsing at the next chapters in store for them.

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