I first read this book in early 2015 and did not care for it. By that point I’d read almost all of Tabitha King’s catalogue and had grown to appreciate and enjoy her writing style. (No, she doesn’t write like her husband at all, nor would I want her to.) Most of her books are set in the fictitious town of Nodd’s Ridge, Maine, a small community where everyone knows each other and no local scandal goes unnoticed. The five Nodd’s Ridge books — Caretakers, The Trap, Pearl, One on One, and The Book of Reuben — revolve around a set cast of characters with a few variables thrown in. King’s books are very much character-oriented; she explores in depth the people of this town she’s created. The reader gets up-close and personal looks at the happenings, both good and ugly.
When I read The Book of Reuben for the first time my life was pretty hectic. I was nearing the end of a stressful college semester and I was about to undergo surgery on my back. I simply was not in a positive or steady state of mind. I wasn’t open to a book about ugly people with ugly problems, facing real life horrors like infidelity and the Vietnam War draft. Therefore, I had quite the adverse reaction to this one. I got 2/3 of the way in and couldn’t take anymore. I gave up on it, and almost gave up on King’s writing altogether. She paints pictures of struggle and fear so well . . . her novels are almost too much to take, sometimes.
Fast forward to the present. I am nearing the end of the initial stage of my college career, and plans for my future are much sturdier and clearer. I’m no longer making trips to Birmingham every other week for consultations with specialists. I’ve been in two serious relationships — one great, one horrible — and have put myself together after both. In short, I’m in a better place. So I decided to reread The Book of Reuben, and give it a fair shake. Am I glad I did; I enjoyed it much more this time around.
This book acts as the prequel to both Pearl and One On One, and takes place in roughly the same timeframe as Caretakers and The Trap. Reuben Styles, the protagonist of the story, wants nothing more than to find happiness, but he somehow always creates hurdles for himself. This is very much a coming-of-age story. Set against the backdrop of the tumultuous ’60s and ’70s and the reformation decade that is the ’80s, the reader sees Reuben grow and work hard and fall in and out of love. He’s an average, blue collar man in a small town where everyone knows him, for good or bad. I love this guy so much. I love him in every Tabitha King novel in which he appears, and I wish King would write again — if only to give us an update on how this man is doing after all these years.
This is a tough, raunchy, and real novel. It isn’t for the faint of heart. It explores the joys and woes of sex, the pain of alcoholism, the dangers of fervent religiosity. There’s divorce and physical altercations. There is heartbreak. There is financial ruin. It isn’t pretty — these are rough, backwoods people who don’t live easy lives — but it’s a necessary and rewarding read. King’s grasp of character is awe-inspiring, and her poetic prose is stunning. This is story worthy reading, and reading again. Highly recommended.