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Review: The Ruining
She wants to leave Detroit behind her, leave the poverty, her neglectful mother, leering stepfather, dead sister. She wants to start anew. She wants to be a new person.
Annie seizes on college as her way of escape: San Francisco State University. Far away from home, from anyone she knows, she can have a second chance and leave her secrets behind. Especially how she is responsible for the death of her sister.
College costs money, so Annie gets a job as a nanny for the wealthy Cohen family. She sees the photo of mother, father, toddler daughter and infant son and she admires that perfection. She wants that perfection.
Annie will be the best nanny, ever, in order to stay with this beautiful family in their welcoming mansion in sunny California.
Her life is a perfect, a dream come true, down to the handsome boy next door.
And then Annie’s dream turns into a nightmare, and she doesn’t know what to believe anymore. Mrs. Cohen — Libby — runs hot and cold. Annie gets mixed messages. Is Annie an employee, a younger sister, a trusted friend? Why has the door been removed from her room? What are the mysterious documents in the garage? Why does Libby favor her baby, Jackson, and ignore young Zoe? Why does Libby sometimes call her “Nanny” not “Annie”?
There’s something not quite right going on in the Cohen household, but really, what does Annie know? She’s new to the house and family. She’s from a different class of people. Maybe this is just the way rich people are, maybe this is just the way a nanny gets treated.
What does Annie know? Is she imagining things? Is something wrong with Annie….or is something wrong with the Cohens?
The Good: This is one of the “OK, I have to discuss it so there will be spoilers, OK, deal with it” reviews. Not quite yet; I won’t start for a few paragraphs.
This is a psychological thriller where a young nanny gets gaslighted by her employer and struggles to hold onto her sanity and reveal the truth about her employer.
Or, is it?
Annie goes from poverty to wealth beyond her dreams. Except, well, she doesn’t — she’s the nanny. And the first intriguing thing about The Ruining is the examination of the nanny/employer relationship. Perhaps because I’m an adult reader (and I like to do that — to identify what I see in a book as an adult reading a book intended for teens) but one of the first things I saw in The Ruining that gave me pause from the start was the blurry lines between Annie and the Cohens. Or, rather, Annie and Libby.
At the start, Annie says “In California, I would reinvent myself. I would finally have the life I deserved.” Yet that life, at first, is not really her life she’s reinventing. Rather, she’s fitting herself into the life of the Cohens, and it’s their life she wants. Once in California, she doesn’t reinvent herself by applying herself to the area that is “her life,” that is, to college and her studies. Instead, it’s the house and food and luxuries of Cohes. This blurring is not one-sided: Libby gives Annie a glass of wine, gives her some of her old clothes, goes through her college course catalog telling Annie what classes to take.
Libby treats Annie almost as a younger sister and Annie drinks that in, wanting more. Libby is a dream come true, so of course it goes wrong.
But here’s the thing: does it?
In other words: just how crazy is Annie?
The Ruining can be read in two ways:
In one, Libby Cohen is a troubled woman who hires Annie because she realizes Annie’s background will make Annie easy to manipulate. Annie’s secret? Annie’s younger sister drowned when Annie was supposed to be watching her. That, and Annie’s fear of returning to Detroit, make her susceptible to Libby’s manipulations. In this reading, Libby gaslights Annie — pushes her buttons — drives her crazy, with Annie ending up in a mental institute. Luckily, the handsome next door neighbor believes in Annie and uncovers Libby’s dark secrets, freeing Annie, and in the end Annie and he are happily living together.
In the other, Annie is a troubled young woman who projects her fears and demons onto Libby. Almost nothing Annie says about Libby can be entirely trusted. Anything Annie says is suspect. Is handsome Owen someone Annie is even involved with? Does he come to rescue her?
And the spoilers start now, because I want to talk about which one of these readings works for me. So if you haven’t read it, be warned.
Be further warned: part of the reason I’m being so spoilery, and so detailed, is that most of the reviews I’ve read take the view of the first reading
Me, I believe that Annie cannot be trusted. Not one bit. Part of why is she tells us not to: “I needed a clean break from my reality.”
Part of it — and this is my bias — there were things that Annie did as a nanny that made me think, “huh.” She notes how she grabs a tote bag from under the kitchen sink to use as a bag for her college books, and nothing said she had permission to do it. She’s given the family car to run an errand and instead takes a lot of time driving around San Francisco. When she packs a gourmet style picnic lunch for the boy next door, I wondered what the Cohens thought when they went to look for the food. These are little things, but little things early on that shows that Annie is from the start thinking “family” not “employer.” Now, some would point to things that what the Cohens did are just as odd — Annie is supposed to be working less than 30 hours a week, but it seems much more. It also seems like she needs to be on call 24/7, even being available on her day off. And, of course, the Cohens as the rich employers have all the power. Still, while I raised an eyebrow or two at what Libby did or didn’t do, I also felt that Annie was just as inappropriate in the relationship.
Annie clearly adores Zoe. She pains herself as a super-nanny. And yet, she uses Zoe to connect with the boy next door, playing outside to “entice Owen out.” Admittedly, even this is murky — did Annie do it, or did she do it because Libby sort of suggested it in a “I hope this isn’t why you want to play outside with Zoe” way? While watching Zoe and flirting with Owen, she gets angry at things Owen says and curses in front of Zoe. Yes, that gave me pause. Also (and sorry, another bias!) when Owen and his parents are over for dinner, and Owen, Zoe, and Annie are alone, Annie’s clear focus is on Owen, not Zoe. This, though, is another example of the blurriness of the whole nanny situation. Is Annie a guest at the diner party, with the Cohens taking advantage by having her watch Zoe? Or is Annie a nanny during the party, ignoring her responsibility to flirt with Owen?
To share just a small bit of how Annie sees the world, here is Annie describing her doctor, someone who she has said only a little older looking than Libby, who is in her early twenties. “He looked like the kind of man whose ambitions had never been connected to the reality he now lived.” Which, first, I love because I can so easily picture such a person. Second, that’s a pretty harsh judgment for Annie to be making on someone who is, by her description, less than thirty. Finally, though, I wonder if it’s Annie herself she’s describing, as someone not connected to her own reality.
Back to Owen, briefly. I’m not sure if he’s made up, entirely; but I do know if he is real (and if the version of Libby as evil manipulator is real) then Owen is not a nice guy. (Spoilers, again, but I’ve read reviews swooning over him!) Here’s the thing: Owen is college age. And when he plays foosball against Zoe, a three year old? He doesn’t let her win. Not once. NOT ONCE. Again, maybe it’s because I’m old, but — no. That’s not the sign of a nice guy with principles.
Instead, I see Owen as the cute, flirty guy next door who Annie wants, who she wants to believe is a guy for her because it fits in with what she wants her life to be, even if it is not. And even as she doesn’t quite connect with the real world, she tries to re-imagine it into the way she wants it to be but the truth bleeds through. So Owen is perfect and handsome, yet she cannot deny that he won’t let a three year old win a game. Annie loves Zoe, and talks of all she does for her, yet keeps peanut butter around the highly allergic child. She finds boxes and clothes marked “Adele – something, maybe Elizabeth, Cohen” and doesn’t acknowledge that Elizabeth is a nickname for Libby and that Libby and Adele may be the same person.
So! Clearly, The Ruining is a book that gave me many thoughts. And feelings. What do you think? Is this a mystery about a girl who is being used by her employer? Or is a look inside a disturbed mind, where nothing can be trusted?
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About Elizabeth Burns
Looking for a place to talk about young adult books? Pull up a chair, have a cup of tea, and let's chat. I am a New Jersey librarian. My opinions do not reflect those of my employer, SLJ, YALSA, or anyone else. On Twitter I'm @LizB; my email is email@example.com.
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