Laura Ruby’s novel Bone Gap is a compelling and thrilling portrait of Midwestern America, and a fascinating mixture of mystery and magical realism. But even more to the point, it has very real characters that portray very real truths about beauty, love, and desire.
In the small town of Bone Gap, Illinois, Finn sticks out like a sore thumb. He’s a little aloof, off in his own little world, and he never looks you in the eye. Hard to blame him for being ill-adjusted, really. His unstable mother took off when he was just 15, trusting his older brother Sean, all-around picture perfect do-gooder, to take care of him. You’d be a little off too, wouldn’t you? And we all know that Finn’s a little off. So when Sean’s girlfriend Roza disappears suddenly, just like she appeared just a few months ago, and Finn claims to have seen a man take her, and he can’t describe that man’s face? Well, we all know that Finn boy isn’t quite right. It’s just a shame that he’s seeing things now, too. Or maybe he helped her leave. Maybe he’s lying, covering for her. After all, the drop-dead gorgeous Polish girl with broken English couldn’t want to stay with those two boys for forever.
All of these things and more rack around in Finn O’Sullivan’s head. He watched his brother’s girlfriend, a woman he loved too, just like she was his own family, kidnapped right in front of his eyes. But no one believes him, so no one looks for her. Not even his brother Sean – especially not Sean. And the madness of it all tugs at his sanity, pulling at the seams. Because all he can think of is how the stranger moves like corn in the wind.
And that’s crazy, right?
But as much as this story sounds like the set-up for another mystery/thriller novel about a kidnapping, it’s anything but. The characters that Ruby paints for us are human in the most complicated sense. From Sean and Finn to Roza, Finn’s best friend Miguel, his love interest Petey, and even their crazed neighbor Charlie Valentine are complex and nuanced. Ruby’s writing style is crisp and tight, with hardly a wasted word anywhere in the book. Backstories are inserted as they serve the story, and flow naturally into the character development with easy and poise. Fifty pages spent in this book feel like a mere ten.
And the story works, not just because the writing is fantastic (which it is), but because there are themes that emerge which tie all of the loose threads together, particularly as they relate to beauty and love. Roza is gorgeous. She knows this. Boys chase after her constantly. Her grandmother warns her about the wrong sort of boys. She learns this lesson the hard way in some of her backstory, but worst of all is her kidnapper, who says he has taken her because she is “the most beautiful woman of all.” He keeps coming to ask “Do you love me?”, presumably until he gets a different answer. Being beautiful, it seems, is not all it’s cracked up to be.
The same thread goes throughout the story, explored in different ways. Roza’s beauty captures the entire town of Bone Gap when she appears out of nowhere. In a flashback, Roza meets an obnoxious bone-thin girl who’s obsessed with carbs that will “make you fat.” And in an interesting turn of character, the girl that Finn can’t stop obsessing over and pursuing, Petey, is a girl who, according to the town, has an ugly face.
There’s lots that happens throughout this book, and I’m not going to dwell on particular plot elements, so as to save the book’s best moments for you to experience firsthand. But the story comes out with some very insightful ideas about the connection between beauty and love (or beauty and lust), and the difference between the two. Perhaps the most telling idea that’s brought out is how these boys that pursue Roza never ask about her. They never want to know about her likes, her wants, her dreams, but are only nice enough to her to get what they ultimately want. That’s not always sex (although it is much of the time), but it is always selfish. Throughout the story, Finn and Sean are both forced to see or acknowledge some level of “ugliness” in their love life. The way they both respond to this is deep and virtuous, corresponding to the true value of a person not being in their external beauty, but in their character.
In all, I would describe what I like best about this book to be a sort of “subtle feminism,” placing the value of women in something other than their physical attractiveness. The way it does this is never heavy-handed or preachy, but simply expresses itself naturally through the plot’s events. We see how selfish men abuse Roza because of what they want from her, and shun Petey because she doesn’t have what they want. We see how, in contrast with those dangerous men, true men like our main characters place value elsewhere. We see the psychological effects this has on both women from both of these sources. In short, this is a deep exploration of the human condition as it pertains to value placed on the individual. This is done so well that it almost feels like dumbing the novel down to call it “Young Adult.” It is YA only in the most technical sense, and continually contradicts genre conventions.
It should be noted, however, that because the novel is a secular one, certain cautions must be extended. Finn and Petey do eventually become sexually involved. This is mostly implied with the exception of one scene, which while brief, does portray teen sex. This is not completely unnecessary as it pertains to character development (I do not believe the purpose of this was only titillation), but that doesn’t change the moral implications of it. There is also some occasional harsh profanity, and a few innuendos, the former mostly from a frustrated or infuriated Finn.
In the end, I do highly recommend this book. While there are some moral issues that should be taken note of, the overall idea, of giving women their humanity despite what socially conditioned beauty might amount to, is certainly a Christian idea. This can be a great talking point for Christians to discuss how all are made in the image of God, and as such, they should be given dignity, humanity, and respect. That’s an idea our current age deeply needs right now, being seeped in a pornographic, sex-saturated culture.