Mourning Ruby, by Helen Dunmore

The title and the cover photo of a little girl in a red coat skipping through autumn leaves told me what this book was going to be about. I didn’t want to read it, the emotional journey being one I didn’t want to take. So I hesitated there in the aisle of my favorite used bookstore, holding the book in my hand, not opening it; just looking at the cover.

It’s a lovely cover. Since I’ve been learning about book design, I took a moment to analyze why it was so pleasing. First off, it is uncluttered. As in most book covers these days, the photo takes up the whole space. Your eye is drawn first to the figure of the girl in the top third of the cover. Her bent back leg exactly parallels the band of leaves which slight curves across the center. Her downward glance, her straight front leg, and the curve of the leaves all lead your eye to the author’s name and title at the bottom third. The palette is limited to the greyish white of the ground and stone wall, shades of tan and brown in the leaves and the girl’s skin and hair, and the red of her coat which is echoed in the leaves and in the color of the text. It’s a glorious cherry red, not strident as red can sometimes be.

I hesitated further because I’d enjoyed an earlier Helen Dunmore book, Love of Fat Men, which I picked up at an International Festival of Authors solely because of the title. Some might say that selecting a book because of its title or its cover design, even allowing myself to be influenced by this packaging shows how superficial my judgment is. I’m okay with that criticism. I am affected by packaging. The quirkiness of the title appealed to me. It told me that the book would be something out of the ordinary.

You have little else to guide you in selecting a book if you aren’t already familiar with the author’s work. You could open it up and read the first paragraph. Writers agonise over that first paragraph, the first sentence, to make it something that will capture your interest. Design experts say you have only six seconds to grab a potential reader’s attention.

Titles are important. They can intrigue you enough to make you pick up the book. They can hint at the contents or—as in the case of the book I held—tell you too much about them. I almost never use my working titles as final titles. Instead, for me, they function as reminders of the core of the story or of the original impulse. I think titles and the description on the back cover are the hardest things to write. They are so short and so important. There’s no chance to blather on and fix or supplement them in the next paragraph.

I did buy Mourning Ruby and read it. It was not as harrowing an experience as I’d feared: sad, often, but quirky, moving back and forth in time, exploring Rebecca’s life, introducing odd characters such as Mr. Damiano, originally a carnie but now creator of hotels where people find what they most want. Rebecca and her husband, Adam, a neonatologist, have a lovely marriage. The sensual descriptions of their life together are just delicious, captured in short chapters that read like prose poems, and the scenes of passion are the best I’ve read in a long time.

As in the Anne Michaels book, Rebecca and Adam are expelled from their paradise, not hand in hand, but separately, taking divergent paths. There is mourning, yes, but also recognition that we would not be who were are without these griefs. And then there’s love.

Images from this book linger; some I will carry for a long time: a blue and gold tent, a view of rooftops in St. Ives. I’m glad I read it, in spite of the cover.

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