With or Without You (Review)

Labels: A Lighter Touch


With or Without You
Domenica Ruta, 2013
224 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
April 2013
I loved her straight off—Domenica Ruta's mother—though I knew I shouldn't. She's irresponsible, drug-addled, narcissistic, mercurial, and destructive, not just self-destructive but destructive toward her daughter.

Yet the portrait drawn of Kathi Ruta in this extraordinary memoir is endearing, often hilarious...as well as infuriating. It was too hard not to fall for such a woman.

We meet Kathi Ruta in the opening pages as she she's swinging a fireplace poker at the windshield of an unnamed woman's car. Kathi is intensely alive if misguided. Crazy may be a better word. Although she "detonates" at the slightest provocation from anyone, anywhere, she remains steadfast to "Nikki"; she is her daughter's biggest supporter, her best friend.

Domenica grows up in a working-class suburb of Boston as part of an extended family, a tribe of  Irish-Italians as impetuous, feckless, and reckless as her mother. Copious amounts of alcohol and drugs, physical abuse, and pedophilia are par-for-the-course.

But Domenica is different. Bookish, shy, and hirsute, she never fits in; she is rejected by just about everyone—her cousins, neighborhood kids, and classmates. Determined early on to be different, Domenica hungers for words in a family who "stumbled—and stumbled proudly" over anything longer than two syllables. She pours over the TV guide, even the electric bill, from which she has her first taste of Latin: "arrears."

She's a loner and a brain and the first in her entire family to attend college. By the time she heads off to grad school, however, she's carrying a complete set of emotional luggage. Domenica has her own devils to vanquish.

Ruta writes with ease and fluidity. Her prose is peppered with humor, pathos, and such elegant turns-of-phrase that you either stop to laugh out loud...or pause to wonder how she does it. Sadly, though, the road to redemption is never as thrilling as the road to perdition. Once her mother Kathi drops out of the picture, the memoir loses some of its punch.

Still, we root for Domenica as she wends her way to wholeness. This is a terrific piece of writing and a great story: book clubs will have much to talk about. I highly recommend With or Without You.

See our Reading Guide for With or Without You.

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