Robin and Ruby
K.M. Soehnlein
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Robin and Ruby
K.M. Soehnlein
288 pages
April 2010
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Soehnlein’s story is at once empathetic and translucent as his two protagonists, siblings Robin and Ruby MacKenzie, tenderly expose their secret insecurities and their most powerful urgencies amid a turbulent backdrop of the 1980s and a rapidly evolving AIDS crisis. This novel is fundamentally an experiment in the restorative influence of family and the power of sexuality to shape people’s lives.

Robin has been trying hard to make a go of it as a waiter in Philadelphia in the summer of 1985 when he receives an acceptance letter for a slot in a London theatre program. A semester studying abroad is just what Michael needs, and although encouraged by the comforting nature of his roommate, George, Robin is nervous about telling his lover, Peter.

As memories of certain nights, his sexual adventures and certain guys come to Robin “like flashes from half-remembered dreams,” distressing reminders of what can’t be undone, he doubts his love for Peter even as he harbors indulgent fantasies about settling down with him. Peter seems to be promising Robin a love that he can’t deliver, their relationship sometimes a high-wire act of petty arguments and things left unsaid.

When Ruby, Robin’s sister, leaves an anguished message on his answering machine, Robin finds himself pulled magnetically toward something stronger, “a steely force, or perhaps some complex machine.” Ruby’s voice is slightly strained and doesn’t sound quite right; she’s calling from Seaside Heights, a small beach town. Apparently she’s just left a boozy party without telling her boyfriend, Calvin, and gone chasing after Chris, a groovy New-Wave guy she met at a Catholic retreat weekend.

Soon enough an evening beginning with rejection ends up as something quite the opposite. Robin and Ruby’s feelings are ignited, even challenged by the long days and warm nights, a ramshackle beach house and a moonlit ocean, the promises of love and the fears of rejection. Caught in a passionate moral conundrum, their complicated emotional connections to each other - and to their lovers - drive the power and themes of this tenderhearted novel.

While his references to 1980s' pop-culture ferment in the background - Robin’s recollections of Times Square filled with gay bars and their boys offering up cheap highs from coke - Soehnlein’s quietly layered story is of complex people, siblings haunted by the memories of their teenage brother, Jackson, who died after falling from a playground slide. With Jackson’s birthday looming, the pain of his loss is elevated from somewhere deep inside, especially for Robin, conflicted with blame and responsibility that he didn’t do more to save his brother.

The one problem I have with this novel is that the author doesn’t leave much to the reader’s imagination, fleshing out his characters’ lives too much and his prose becoming cluttered at times, which makes the reading experience tedious. Yet Soehnlein’s protagonists are always strong, sensitive and resilient despite their histrionics and dramas as they move to new and exciting points in their lives, perhaps to a place where they can eventually put their past mistakes behind them.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2010

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