Ripe by Sarah Rose Etter: book review
Overview: Cassie moved to San Fransisco for a tech job that was supposed to signify finally making it in the corporate world. She's left behind a contentious relationship with her mother and her emotional anchor in the form of her father on the East Coast. The job, San Fransisco, and her relationship with a chef who already has a girlfriend slowly drains her will to continue. Set vaguely around the dawn of COVID with a virus and terrible wildfires engulfing California, Cassie struggles to keep her head above water. Overall: 4.5
Characters: 5 Despite all the drama in the official book summary from illegal job activities to an unwanted pregnancy, this is a book is really a character study of Cassie, who could really be any young woman in any major city just trying to get by. We experience the world through Cassie's muted eyes as she struggles with intense depression, or as she calls it, the black hole. She goes through the paces of her soul sucking tech job. She tolerates the few friends she's made along the way. She compensates heavily with drugs and finds small pleasure in the chef she's dating that will never wholly be hers because he's in an open relationship and is already dating another woman. The only rule is that he can never fall in love with Cassie. Every road is a dead end, and every moment in San Fransisco eats up more of her soul.
One of the most fascinating character developments is the way that we experience the people around her. Some of her coworkers get names. Others are only known by their utility, a job title or role. The chef is also simply known as his role. Somehow, this makes them come to life even more. Her friends live up to different city girl archetypes, but the lack of connection comes through painfully clear. There's an authenticity that stokes even more pain in her relationship with the chef. Her sacred relationship with her father is deeply compelling. Even though he can't do or say much for her and has a hard shell, he's her comfort person, and that bond radiates off the page.
The book alternates between short chapters and definitions of different words that bleed into memories and give more insight into who Cassie is and who she was before San Fransisco. It's super effective and innovative. We also get to read her scientific notes on black holes. There's two major symbols that orbit Cassie – black holes and pomegranates – and they both play an intrinsic role in the structure of the book that feels really interesting and successful. While such clear and present symbolism can feel corny or overwrought easily, the personification and depiction of depression here felt natural.
Plot: 4 So much of this book is about how the world will just eat you alive. I particularly identified with Cassie's constant struggle with the city. While the book is about San Fransisco, it immediately resonated with my experience of a different California city – Los Angeles. There's an intense focus on the amount of pain and suffering you witness every day by just existing in a city like that. Early on, Cassie is passing on the street when a man light himself on fire and her train gets delayed because a man threw himself on the train tracks. There are smaller moments that wear out your soul through the world's cruelty as she skirts past the homeless man who lives under her window and experiences the deteriorating conditions of the city each day. You either grow hard and oblivious to the situation around you or it wears and hole in your soul, and you see it get bigger and bigger in Cassie each day. It's a devastating portrait, even as Cassie doesn't experience this poverty herself, and it is a searingly honest portrait of American cities and perhaps the specific one of being a transplant in these places.
Another large component of how this book is advertised is Cassie's unwanted pregnancy. She spends most of the book in denial, unwilling to even take a test. She does eventually confront it. I generally don't like books where characters get accidentally pregnant, but this book dealt with it well. I like that it was a fact from the outset instead of unfairly thrust on the character midway through as a plot point because the narrative was getting stale. There was an honest intentionality in its inclusion. In the shitstorm of Cassie's life, this reality is only one minor player. This book is truly an exploration of death by a thousand cuts.
The only reason it lost a star is because I have mixed feelings on the ending. I understand it and respect it artistically, but as a reader who grew deeply attached, I wanted more for Cassie and her ending.
Writing: 5 The writing is absolutely incredible. The style is great. The short chapters mixed with the dictionary entries made the book move fast even though the actual plot points were very repetitive and Cassie spent most of her days doing the same things over and over. It takes talent to create movement in a strongly character driven novel. It's both utterly heartbreaking and cathartic. Ripe is willing to be beyond honest in a way that few books are brave enough to be. It was truly a breathtaking read from page one.
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