Book Review: Ruin Falls by Jenny Milchman

Ruin Falls Ruin Falls
Jenny Milchman
Ballantine Books, April 2014
ISBN 978-0-345-54907-5

From the publisher—

Liz Daniels has every reason to be happy about setting off on a rare family vacation, leaving behind her remote home in the Adirondack Mountains for a while. Instead, she feels uneasy. Her children, eight-year-old Reid and six-year-old Ally, have met their paternal grandparents only a handful of times. But Liz’s husband, Paul, has decided that, despite a strained relationship with his mother and father, they should visit the farm in western New York where he spent his childhood.
On their way to the farm, the family stops at a hotel for the night. In the morning, when Liz goes to check on her sleeping children, all her anxiety comes roaring back: Ally and Reed are nowhere to be found. Blind panic slides into ice-cold terror as the hours tick by without anyone finding a trace of the kids. Soon, Paul and Liz are being interviewed by police, an Amber Alert is issued, and detectives are called in.
Frantic worry and helplessness threaten to overtake Liz’s mind—but in a sudden, gut-wrenching instant she realizes that it was no stranger who slipped into the hotel room that night. Someone she trusted completely has betrayed her. Though she knows that Ally and Reid are safe, Liz will stop at nothing to find them and get them back. From her guarded in-laws’ unwelcoming farmhouse to the deep woods of her own hometown, Liz follows the threads of a terrible secret to uncover a hidden world created from dreams and haunted by nightmares.

Anyone who has ever had a child or has even spent a few moments with one fears that the child will disappear. So many terrible things can happen to them and we can’t help imagining the worst; the truth is, monsters do exist. When Liz wakes up to find her children missing, it takes only a few scant minutes to go from a peaceful morning to outright panic. In the following hours, nothing happens to alleviate her terror and her husband, Paul, has to help keep Liz together while controlling his own despair. Control, after all, is what Paul knows best.

How much more frightening is it, then, to find out that her children are not really missing, not in the eyes of the law. Liz still doesn’t know where they are and all those people trained to help in such a terrible situation have now packed up and gone home. From this point on, Liz is virtually on her own and coming out from Paul’s shadow is the first thing she’ll have to do.

Liz is a protagonist who, for me, became more and more like a woman I’d like to know in real life as time went on. It’s easy to discount someone who allows another person to essentially rule her life but it’s so invigorating to watch that same person learn to stand on her own two feet when she really needs to. In an interesting twist, it becomes obvious that unnatural control is at the heart of everything that’s happening and a variety of characters respond to that control in different ways and in different periods of their lives, eventually dragging others into their spider-like webs. Liz grows into a completely different kind of person, the person she was probably meant to be all along, in a brief span of time that feels like an eternity to her and to the reader who wants her to find a happy ending.

Is there a happy ending here? In some ways, no, and there’s no doubt that Liz’s trust in others, including her best friend, has been permanently damaged. The reader’s journey is nearly as tense and frightening as this young mother’s and there were moments when I was chewing my nails, waiting to see what would happen next and whether certain people would survive. There’s a scene in Liz’s own home that’s about as creepy as it gets and I truly hope I never have such an experience.

Is this a perfect piece of crime fiction? No, not quite. The whole theme of “back to the land” is a bit overdone (and, honestly, made me think some of those people are kind of nuts). Occasionally, Liz is just a bit too oblivious or too ready to jump to conclusions and a brief bit of romance is not very believable or, for that matter, of any importance to the story. I also felt the actual denouement is a bit out of left field but all of that is easily outweighed by a crime that strikes right at the heart and by a protagonist who becomes more than she ever thought she could be. Ruin Falls is a novel of suspense that will stay in my mind for a long time to come and is a worthy follow-up to Ms. Milchman‘s excellent award-winning Cover of Snow.

Note: Ms. Milchman was very kind to include me in her acknowledgements and I’m honored to count Jenny as a friend as well as a favorite author. I can assure you, dear reader, that her thoughtful inclusion of me among those who are delighted to support her had no effect on this review. I had already formed my opinion of Ruin Falls before I even knew I’d been named  and I can truthfully tell you this is a book you’ll want to read 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2014.