Lohmann and I follow each other on Twitter, but I had no idea she’d been working on a book that featured a paraplegic hero who used a wheelchair. So when she offered me a copy of this book over the summer, I was surprised but totally curious to see what she did with the theme. I’m a notoriously harsh critic of books featuring disabled characters, so the fact that she offered me a copy shows either that she’s a brave little toaster or that she was confident that her portrayal was a thoughtful one. In either case, this was a book I wanted to read, and, luckily for the both of us, it was a book I ended up enjoying quite a bit.
Winning Ruby Heart opens at the starting line of a 50k trail run that’s a qualifying race for a later ultramarathon. Cable TV sports journalist Micah Blackwell wouldn’t normally be at a low-profile event like this, but he’d found a Mexican-American runner at an earlier race who turned out to be a colorful character who gave a great interview, so he was rolling around the gravel at a race somewhere in Iowa when a woman in the pack of runners caught his eye. A baseball cap shaded her face, but something about her looked familiar. He had his suspicions, but wasn’t quite sure yet when he asked his cameraman to get some footage of her as well. Eventually it dawns on him that it’s been five years since Olympic runner and media darling Ruby Heart fell from grace amid a blood doping scandal. Her competition ban must be up and she’s taken to long-distance running. His series on ultramarathons suddenly looks dull: a series on Ruby Heart’s redemption would make his career.
Let’s get right down to the interesting bits and talk about how the book uses disability as a theme and what I think of it, shall we? A reviewer at RT called it an “unflinching” take on disability, probably because of scenes like this one:
“Don’t leave on my account.” She didn’t want to be alone in this hotel room again. When he rolled out that door, the promise of friendship would fade into prepared questions, studio lights and a voice-over turning her life into a movie trailer.
“No, I have to go on my account. I have to use the bathroom.”
She glanced to the doorway of her bathroom, assessing whether his chair would fit. “You can use mine. If you can’t close the door, I’ll step outside.”
“Ruby, I didn’t bring a catheter.”
“Oh.” She felt stupid for not realizing that. She stepped around him, putting her hand on the doorknob and bracing herself to let him out.
“Maybe the arms aren’t so attractive now that you know the details of how I pee?”
On the whole, I thought the book did a good job of showing an individual’s disabled experience as he navigates an ableist society, but I would not call the portrayal “unflinching”, and the scene above almost made me DNF. View Spoiler »Stop telling me how your paralyzed character pees. I don’t want to know about anyone’s peeing. « Hide Spoiler There are a number of elements that are basically cliches for disabled characters. Micah is a former NCAA football player who became a paraplegic after a bad tackle in a game. He participates in wheelchair sports and works out regularly, giving him a strong upper body that Ruby admires. His grandmother, who raised him, reacted poorly to his injury and abandoned him. His coworker who makes grossly ableist assumptions about Micah’s life is a thoroughly unsympathetic lout that everyone dislikes. They have PIV sex.
Luckily, these elements combine with other, less-stereotypical elements to make Micah’s experience unique. He dates regularly, but hasn’t settled down because his career is time-consuming. He has a close relationship with his father. He rolls his eyes at casual ableism and finds it ridiculous. This conversation between Ruby and her cousin/BFF explicitly challenges the casual ableism of good people who mean well:
“He’s in a wheelchair.” Haley put on her rarely used serious voice. “Let’s say you finish the NSN thing and you guys start dating. Have you thought about what would happen next?”
“I assume we would keep dating and then we would either break up or we wouldn’t. It’s been a while since I’ve had a boyfriend, but I think that’s how it works.”
“If you’re asking what I find so attractive about a man on wheels, then you should come right out and say it.”
“…[W]hat are you going to do when he gets old. Will he have health problems?”
Haley’s fiancé smoked a pack a day, a fact Ruby chose not to point out. “I wonder if Micah’s father is asking him if I have enough body fat to menstruate so we’ll be able to have children.”
“Lay off, is what you’re saying.”
“Or even the playing field and ask Micah if he’s prepared for my possible joint problems.”
So, this isn’t an “unflinching” portrayal. It has a number of tropes that non-disabled readers expect and are comfortable with. Nobody is asked to imagine a happy sex life without penetrative sex. Micah has a conventionally attractive body and he can continue to play sports. Little of what goes on in the book challenges ableist assumptions of what people need to be happy. And that’s fine. It doesn’t need to. It’s a story about an individual who is disabled where the disability is not the conflict. That’s all I need. Achievement unlocked.
All of my problems with the book are problems I would have with any book. The interview/series that provides the pretense for them to be in each other’s company is also what makes all the time they spend together implausible. Why would a sports journalist doing a series on a subject invite her to work out with him at his gym? Why would a woman accept that invitation from the man who did the interview that humiliated her five years ago and is using her for ratings now? I never quite got comfortable with the set up. Additionally, there’s a sex scene that felt forced with not enough leading up to it, Micah is a dick to Ruby at one point and doesn’t really apologize for it and the ending is deus ex machina with a pretty bow on it.
If you like flawed heroines and redemption stories, this is the book for you. I’ve seen Ruby described as unlikeable, which isn’t the word I’d use, as I liked her quite a bit. She’s a spoiled, privileged woman who totally fucked up and pissed her career away by cheating. When she was caught, she fancied herself a victim, comparing her lost career to Micah’s situation. But she’s learned a bit in the five years since, and the old her embarrasses her completely. I’ve done and said a ton of stupid shit myself, how could I not empathize? Everything she does to move forward – moving out of her parents’ house, volunteering at an animal shelter, adopting a dog, getting a job – showed me a woman deciding to move on with her life and stop feeling sorry for herself. It was nice to see a broken woman put herself back together. It was a refreshing change from seeing flawed heroines humiliated to “earn” their HEA.
Final Assessment: If you’re looking for a fair portrayal of disability, this book does a pretty good job of it. It has a few bits that pulled me out of the story, but it’s a great redemption story with a strong heroine. I’d definitely recommend this one. B-