The year 2019 didn’t want for sparky essay collections that interrogated the female experience, with Rebecca Solnit, Jia Tolentino and Rachel Cusk all publishing new work. Even so, Emilie Pine’s bestselling Notes to Self stood out. Initially released by a small, independent Irish press before being scooped up by Hamish Hamilton, the Dublin academic’s mainstream debut brought unusual clarity and compassion to bear on sources of resonant personal pain including miscarriage, rape and life as the daughter of an alcoholic father.
She follows it now with a first novel, Ruth & Pen, which taps that same likable combination of benevolence and searing inquiry as it sets the stories of its two title characters dancing around each other, drawing into their orbit questions of sexuality, self-worth and neurodiversity, as well as themes from the essays.
Ruth is a 43-year-old therapist. With her marriage buckling beneath the weight of repeated IVF cycles, she suspects husband Aidan is about to leave her, and though her days are spent helping others parse their deepest responses, she’s yet to properly acknowledge the extent to which she feels “violated” by all that her body has endured in pursuit of a family.
Meanwhile, 16-year-old Pen is on the spectrum, still adjusting to her parents’ divorce and trying to summon the courage to ask her best friend, Alice, out on a date. She has her own recent trauma to contend with, and is increasingly preoccupied by the climate emergency. Her overriding ambition is to be “normal”.
The novel is set over the course of a single October day, during which its Dublin backdrop will host an Extinction Rebellion protest. It won’t be an ordinary day for either protagonist, and by nightfall, both will have faced up to their most anguished fears.
Despite being separated by just two degrees, Ruth and Pen are unknown to each other. Their paths cross tantalisingly midway through the novel but what really binds them are their preoccupations – anxieties about their bodies and their value, about language and its limitations. Though decades apart in age, both are awakening to an urgent need to cut their own paths through the tangled terrain of love and desire.
There is much to admire here. Crucially, in giving Pen a complex internal life that’s set on an equal footing with Ruth’s, Pine sidesteps many of the cliches that attend the representation of autistic characters in literature and film. “You can’t be autistic and average at the same time, you have to be gifted and interesting,” Pen observes, thereby demonstrating that she is at least incredibly shrewd. But if her viewpoint enables her to spot universal truths likely to elude the more neurotypical, she’s also just a teenage girl coming of age in uncertain times.
It may not sound like it, but joy is a vital ingredient in Ruth & Pen. Sometimes, accessing it requires thinking back to the past or imagining a fanciful future; more often it’s to be found in life’s small, everyday details – a serendipitous painting or a pleasing idiom, a train pulling in to the platform so that the carriage door is exactly in front of you.
These act as necessary reminders to Pine’s characters – one just making her way into womanhood, the other on the brink of middle age – not to abandon their own desires, however messy or conflicted they appear. That message is one of the most uplifting, lightly subversive rewards of this warm and deeply felt novel.