Rating: Loved it!
Description: Fragility and forgetfulness have made 82 year old Iris vulnerable; she lives in the care of her manservant Mamdooh. Stifling quiet and claustrophobic, Iris's Cairo house is suddenly disturbed by the arrival of her troubled and willful granddaughter, Ruby, who laboring under a strained relationship with her family, has fun away from England to seek solace with the grandmother she hasn't seen for many years. Grasping for the family connection she lacks, Ruby feels consoled by the bond she forms with Iris.
Ruby beings documenting Iris's deteriorating memories, especially the story of the mysterious Captain Xan Molyneus, who Iris lost to the ravages of World War II. With their judgment colored by the lens of memory, Iris and Ruby's journey into the glittering Cairo of the past lures the women into dire circumstances in the present-day Egyptian desert. A story of finding, and losing, and finding oneself again, Iris and Ruby portrays three generations of women who must learn how to handle the complicated relationships that have the power to either strengthen or destroy them. (from the Publisher)
Why I Picked This Book: When I was received the invitation to be part of the tour for this book from Overlook Press I was a little hesitant. Just the idea of memory loss makes me a little jittery but I was intrigued by the grandmother/granddaughter relationship and the location to put aside my worries. I'm so glad I did.
My Impression: I don't even know where to begin with this book! There's so so so much that I loved and connected too and just truly felt.
I didn't particularly like Iris or Ruby at the beginning. Ruby is trying so hard to be shocking that it's tiresome. She's angry and immature and is really like a child in the midst of a temper tantrum. Iris is angry too. She's angry that she can't do what she used to do, she's angry that she can't remember what she wants to remember and she's angry that scared. She's used to being on her own and isn't overly thrilled to have this child that she doesn't know come crashing into her very controlled home. But then something happens and slowly - so slowly that you don't notice at first - Iris and Ruby begin to connect and form a rapport. With that connection comes change Iris relaxes, she learns how to talk again and remembers how to laugh. The change in Ruby especially is wonderful. She finds interests outside of her self-pity and rebellion, she begins to listen. Really she begins to grow up. We also meet Lesley, Iris's daughter and Ruby's mother. Lesley's relationship with both her daughter and her mother is not what she wants them to be and she has no idea how to fix it. The harder she tries to hold on the harder they pull away. In many ways I was able to relate to all the characters in this book. There is the relationship between Iris and Ruby which is so special and so separate from Lesley, Lesley trying to navigate the waters of having a daughter who is technically an adult but still seems like such a child and also having to really look at herself anf figure out what she wants for the first time.
Then there's the setting. Cairo isn't just a label slapped on as window dressing. The story really takes place in Cairo. After reading this I felt like I'd been there - I driven through mazes of narrow streets and alleys, wandered around the market with awe, and toured the museum with all the wonders of Ancient Egypt. I saw glamourous parties where people danced and drank and ignored the fact the war was looming over them.
The pacing was so wonderful. I was immediately pulled into the story and the characters and the city really just came alive for me. While there is a lot of heavy emotions going on and some drama I never felt like it was overwrought or that I just wanted to put the book down. These were characters that really just wanted to spend more time with and continue watching them evolve. The ending was an ending which made me happy. Books that just stop just drive me crazy. There was some open-endedness but there was also so much growth from all the characters that things felt resovled. I cannot believe this is the first book I've read by Rosie Thomas but it definitely won't be last.
And speaking of Rosie Thomas - she was nice enough to stop by and answer a few questions including giving us a hint as to where she's going to take us next!
A Short Interview with Rosie Thomas
1. Iris is such a strong an interesting character and you did a wonderful job of weaving in her increasing memory loss while still retaining her essential Iris-ness. What kind of research did you do to so poignantly portray memory loss?
I didn’t do any specific research into age-related dementias. In fact I slightly feared that I would get enmeshed in case-related details and medical history, so I deliberately avoided anything but the most general reading by which I established that Iris was probably suffering from the effects of depression and isolation rather than a full-blown dementia. Beyond that I tried to imagine how it would feel to be unable to revisit precious memories – to know that they had been there, but no longer be able to see and taste and feel their texture. It would be a kind of daily bereavement. Hence the image of reaching for the favourite cup in its usual place on the shelf – but the hand closing on empty air.
2. Iris and Ruby covers 2 time periods and takes place in such different worlds. What was the inspiration for the story and the characters?
I had been thinking about mothers and daughters, and how that close tie can sometimes be nourishing and sometimes – not. This led me to consider grandmother/granddaughter relationships as a contrast, and I started to imagine what an unconventional version might involve. Perhaps a fierce old lady and a turbulent young woman? How would their lives differ, and what points of contact might they discover? What would bring them closer to each other, and how would their attitudes be affected? I’d recently been in Cairo, and had visited the real version of Iris’s amazing house – now a museum. And it occurred to me that a sandstorm out in the desert would be a great point of jeopardy for both women. I’d recently had a scary experience in a Namibian desert…. So the plot came together incrementally. As often happens with my writing!
3. In your previous books you've taken us to India, 1880s London, Nepal, and even Antarctica. Now we're in modern and World War II era Egypt. Where are you taking us next?
But it’s early days, and I am superstitious.
4. I know picking a favorite book is like picking a favorite child but if you had to recommend 1 book to everyone what would it be?
I’d probably say THE KASHMIR SHAWL, because that seems to be a general favourite with my readers. Personally, I have a soft spot for THE POTTER’S HOUSE. I wrote it at a time of personal difficulty and it’s quite dark and mysterious. But I think it turned out all right….
Would I Recommend this Book?: Yes I really would. If you enjoyed Rosamunde Pilcher's The Shell Seekers I think you'd love this one. This is much darker and grittier and the relationships fleshed out a lot more but Thomas' portrayal reminded me a little of Penelope Keeling but even more so.