Reviews for With or Without You : A Memoir

Booklist Reviews 2013 February #2
In the tradition of such tragic family memoirs as The Liars' Club (1995) and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2012), Ruta details her struggle to rise above a childhood with a drug-addicted mother. Unexpectedly, her memories are not about shooting up but rather about the dizzying journey down and up the economic ladder as her mother sporadically succeeded at business but utterly failed at parenting. Ruta juxtaposes the hallmarks of abject poverty with visits to her father's nearby middle-class suburban life, and the schizophrenic shift brought by her mother's sudden financial boons that were never enough, however, to mitigate the hoarding, filth, or endless pills that led Ruta down her own journey into addiction. She admits when her memories are fuzzy and is bracingly honest about her own failures and never wavers from the emotional truth of what it was like to build a life in such circumstances. The intensity of the clear-eyed manner in which Ruta conveys her abiding frustration with the parents who failed their child so casually and monumentally is exceedingly powerful stuff. Copyright 2012 Booklist Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2013 March
The mother she left behind

As daughters, do we become echoes of our mothers and grandmothers? And if our mothers failed us as role models, are we doomed to fail in the same way? These are the haunting central questions of With or Without You by Domenica Ruta, lifting it above other recent examples of the dysfunctional “mommy and me” memoir.

Nikki grows up working class in Danvers, Massachusetts, in a rickety house on the river she shares with her mother, Kathi, and her Sicilian grandmother. Kathi is a drug user and dealer with pretensions toward art, a mother who would keep her daughter home from school to watch the Godfather trilogy on TV. The opening sequence of the book sets up the mother-daughter dynamic beautifully: Kathi drags her young daughter along while she bashes in the windshield of another woman’s car. “Don’t look at Mummy right now, OK?” Kathi asks.

But Nikki does look. What she sees and experiences as a child—drugs, abuse, neglect—she learns to repress. It didn’t happen. This is how she survives: by compulsively cleaning her mother’s house, organizing its chaos and blotting out the adults cutting lines of drugs on the coffee table. Kathi’s aspirations for her daughter eventually provide an escape hatch: scholarships to boarding school, a liberal arts college and an MFA program. But cutting ties with her toxic mother doesn’t free Nikki from Kathi’s echoing influence. It’s only after freeing herself from her own alcoholism that Nikki—now Domenica—begins to remember and process her childhood.

Memory is as central a theme as mothers in With or Without You. The storyline is episodic, flashing back and forth between scenes and characters and timelines. This can feel awkward in the early pages until Ruta’s method becomes clear: In sobriety, her memories of childhood and Kathi emerge in fragments. Because it acknowledges these gaps in memory, this memoir feels honest, like it has hit a bedrock truth—that we both love and hate our mothers, and that this ambivalence lingers long after we’ve left them.

“Write me a letter,” Kathi as[Thu Aug 28 23:24:19 2014] Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\ line 249. ks her daughter. In this stunning new memoir, Domenica Ruta writes a love letter to the woman she had to leave behind in order to live.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

BookPage Reviews 2014 March
New paperback releases for reading groups

In his ingenious third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid spoofs the self-help business guides that are all the rage among Asia’s would-be entrepreneurs. Throughout the narrative, he writes from the second-person point of view, employing “you” to refer to his anonymous protagonist, a poor young man from a provincial part of Asia, who, armed with a little education and a lot of ambition, seeks opportunities in the big city. He tries his hand at various enterprises and eventually becomes rich through a (somewhat sketchy) bottled-water business. His big dream, though, involves a woman whose fortunes have run a similar course. Composed of 12 chapters, each of which bears a scrap of advice as a title—Work for Yourself; Have an Exit Strategy—this masterfully crafted story captures the manners and mores of contemporary Asia, but also serves as a shrewd commentary on the desires that drive us all. This is a remarkably inventive novel from a writer who isn’t afraid to take risks.

In her vividly realized memoir, With or Without You, Domenica Ruta looks back on the turbulent childhood she experienced with her drug-addicted mother, Kathi. Raised in Danvers, Massachusetts, she grows up in a household where poverty and mayhem are the order of the day, overseen by a mom who’s often dysfunctional. Money is always short. The time Ruta spends with her father in his comfortable, suburban neighborhood only heightens the sense of deprivation she feels at home. Kathi, who comes from an Italian-American family, has a feisty spirit and an unpredictable disposition. With her moodiness, her endless need for drugs and her taste for drama, she’s an unforgettable character, and Ruta does a wonderful job of bringing out the paradoxes in her mother’s personality. Ruta’s own struggle with addiction is part of the story, and she writes about it with unflinching honesty. She depicts her unorthodox upbringing with dark humor and lucid prose, making her relationship with Kathi come alive on the page.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s hypnotic third novel, Americanah, tells the story of Ifemelu, a confident, beautiful Nigerian who immigrates to America. In her new home, Ifemelu struggles to adapt and to survive financially. But she makes it through college, starts an acclaimed blog about race, and wins a fellowship to Princeton. All the while she’s haunted by memories of her former boyfriend, Obinze. Soft-spoken and introverted, Obinze immigrates to London where he ekes out an uncertain existence before being deported. Back home, he becomes wealthy as a property developer. When Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, her old feelings for him are revived, and the pair find themselves in the grip of passion. Both are forced to make difficult decisions about the future. Adichie’s dramatic, sweeping narrative functions as an emotionally riveting love story, as a profound meditation on race and as a revealing exploration of the immigrant experience. It succeeds—beautifully—on every level.

Copyright 2012 BookPage Reviews.

Kirkus Reviews 2012 December #1
The memoir of the emancipation of a daughter from her drug-dealer, addict mother. Despite the hardships she endured as a child, Ruta demonstrates a deep and loving bond with her mother. Other family members meander in and out of the narrative, but it is Ruta's mom who features the most prominently in these stories of coming-of-age during the 1980s. Marathon movie nights spent tucked in bed counterpoint days of poverty, trash-strewn rooms, drug dealing and her mother high on cocaine, OxyContin or other drugs. "Mum never distinguished between physical and emotional pain," writes the author, "especially when she had a pill that could cure both." Ruta holds nothing back as she realistically and tenderly portrays her childhood in Massachusetts, whether she's writing about school events at her Catholic school, her mother's ascent as a millionaire and subsequent loss of money due to drug use, or the sexual abuse at the hands of a pedophile, one of her mother's friends. Ruta also delves into her own drug and alcohol abuse, her desire to make something of herself and how she crawled back into society: "I used to be a miserable, spiritless, insecure egomaniac who smelled like whiskey. Now I am a well-intentioned, sometimes volatile, even more insecure egomaniac who smells like coffee." It is this kind of exposure, and the use of dark humor and explicit language, that makes the book so intriguing, and Ruta shows how a strong maternal bond at an early age can lead to forgiveness regardless of the circumstances. A sharp portrayal of recovery from a lifetime of pitfalls and the love that held it all together. Copyright Kirkus 2012 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

Library Journal Reviews 2012 October #1

Billed dramatically as the debut of a prodigy--Ruta was finalist for the Keene Prize of the University of Texas at Austin, where she received her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers--this memoir assays the author's rise from a particularly tough childhood. Her mother was a drug dealer and user, and Ruta had to break from her to survive. An in-house favorite being compared to Mary Karr's The Liar's Club and Jeanette Walls's The Glass Castle.

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Publishers Weekly Reviews 2012 November #4

Life under an erratic single mom, first on welfare, then a millionaire, in the 1980s proved a wearying contest for survival of the fittest as recounted in this valiant, bittersweet debut by Danvers, Mass., native Ruta. Five feet tall and Italian American, with a loud gutter-mouth, copious breasts, and bleached blond hair, Kathi aka Mum lived from one menial job to the next that kept her comfortably supplied with pain killers she happily shared with her only daughter while concocting conflicting plans for her including school scholarships and early pregnancy. Ruta lived in the basement of her grandfather's house on Massachusetts's North Shore, surrounded by her mother's other Italian American relatives ("a band of lunatics" who enjoyed a "thuggish, moronic code of honor"), as she learned from hard experience to endure her mother's overbearing solicitude, such as when her mother sent 13-year-old Ruta to Catholic school on picture day dolled up like a trollop or traipsing through the most exclusive New England boarding schools seeking admittance. In fact, Kathi's hare-brained scheme worked, and Ruta was admitted to Phillips Academy Andover, where, to her mother's delight, her decidedly square daughter could finally catch up on sex and drugs. Fueled by profits from taking over her second husband's livery business, Kathi delved hard into heroin and other drugs, providing a titanic model for her daughter both to emulate and overcome. Survival required separation, and Ruta's account is a fairly dry, restrained chronicle of a wrenching embrace of health and sobriety. (Mar.)

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