I’m not sure what really compelled me to pick up In the River Sweet. I hadn’t really heard of the author, Patricia Henley, before and the blurb in the cover pages wasn’t all that captivating to me either. But, somehow I picked up the book anyway and began reading. And I gotta say, this book was actually really nice to read. I’m kind of a sucker for family drama stories. Actually, I just really like drama in general. And this story had plenty of that. That said, despite my like for this book, this review will probably also be very short and shallow like the previous review because I actually read this book months ago and hence am a little vague on the details. However, as with other reviews, this will also be pretty spoiler-filled.
So the story is about a middle aged woman named Ruth. She lives a pretty chill and happy life. She likes her job at the community library, her husband adores her, and she has a wonderful daughter. However, this idyllic world of hers is shattered when she receives a mysterious email and when her daughter comes out to her as a lesbian. She has a bit of trouble adjusting to the latter, due to her religious beliefs, and her fear increases after the appearances of some hate crimes. The former however, troubles her for a long time and very greatly. The email is revealed to be from a man who claims to be her son. And then the story flashes back to Ruth’s youth.
High school sweethearts, Johnny, Ruth’s fiance at the time, goes off to fight in the Vietnam War. Growing concerned about him and fed up of living with her rude-ish aunt, Ruth decides to follow him and lands in Saigon. Unlike Johnny who fights (and actually, I don’t think he even knows at this point in the flashback that she went to Vietnam), she ends up working for French nuns and comes into contact with a blind Vietnamese boy, Vo. Ruth is hired to read to Vo and over time, the two’s friendship grows greatly. It eventually culminates into a relationship, in which a son is bourn. However, despite her happiness with Vo and her son, her presence in Vietnam continues to be dangerous and after the fall of Saigon, it comes very difficult. So with an extremely heavy and sorrow-filled heart, she makes the decision to go back to the USA alone. When she comes back to the USA, she is eventually reunited with Johnny and they marry and have their daughter Laurel.
The single email changes Ruth’s life and she decides to contact her son with Vo. She doesn’t really tell Johnny about this and kinda does this behind his back. It turns out, Vo and her son also eventually made it to America and that the only reason the son is contacting Ruth, is because he’s curious about her genetic background, i.e. he’s getting married and want’s to make sure that he hasn’t inherited any genetic diseases or anything. Ruth herself is kinda at odds about how to behave with him and so is he. Vo got remarried upon entry to America and his new wife really, really, REALLY dislikes Ruth and isn’t happy to have renewed contact with her (she’s never even met her). In fact, the son doesn’t tell his mother that he’s meeting Ruth until they’ve already met a few times. Eventually, as the novel progresses, the son invites Ruth to his wedding and she meets his bride and she meets Vo. Turns out, there’s not any romantic feelings lingering on their part and she eventually returns home to her husband, who himself was feeling super lonely and sad while she was gone (Ruth told Johnny that she went to visit the ailing aunt who raised her, which she did, but she spent most of her time thinking about her son and meeting him).
The story itself is okay. What really caught my attention, was the writing. It’s written in this very soft sort of way with no quotation marks. While I’m usually not a fan of that, I think it worked really well here. And I actually also enjoyed being inside Ruth’s mind and seeing her thought processes. I found her to be an engaging, albeit annoying at times, character. The emotional journey she goes through is really nice. I really found myself connected to her and into her story. However, I didn’t really like the small Johnny POV’s we got. I guess the Ms. Henley thought they were necessary or unique and hence added them. Idk, they just showed how dependant Johnny was on Ruth. I didn’t particularly care for them. I actually wished we had access to Vo’s POV. I really wanted to hear what happened to him after Ruth left and how he and his son immigrated. Speaking of which, I was also pretty let down at the ending. I wanted the book to continue. I mean, the ending emotionally makes sense because Ruth did reach the semi-end of her emotional journey. She learned to accept her daughter’s sexuality, her daughter’s girlfriend, their decision to move away from home to a more accepting state. And she eventually came to terms with the her time in Saigon with Vo and the son she left behind. But I just, I really wanted to read more. What happened later on, at the wedding? What was Johnny’s reaction to Ruth’s past (I don’t think she actually ever told him tbh and I don’t think he was interested in learning either)? I don’t know, I guess I found myself so invested in the story and characters that I was a bit sad and taken off guard when the story ended so soon. I really liked reading it.
My rating: definitely read it if you like reading about compelling emotional journeys.