*Guest reviewer: Author Laura Anderson Kurk
The Embittered Ruby is the story of sixteen-year-old Carmen Castillo’s struggle with the tumultuous change in her life. Her parents have just divorced and her father has a shiny new girlfriend. In an effort to prove to her ex-husband that she’s a survivor, Carmen’s mom takes a job in Hackensack, New Jersey, and moves her three daughters away from their life of luxury in Briarcliff Manor, New York, to a tiny apartment in a questionable neighborhood.
Carmen, accustomed to country clubs, fancy dinners, and the company of her wealthy boyfriend, Nate, hates being the new girl in a gang-infested school. Unfortunately, she attracts the attention of a gang leader, and has to rely on another tough guy who protects her by pretending to be her boyfriend. Even running to the store in this neighborhood is scary.
She feels like she’s living someone else’s life. She longs for a pair of ruby slippers to take her home, and her longing turns to bitterness when she sees that her old life really is gone.
Desperate and determined, she hatches a plan to take back her world in bits and pieces through a hastily orchestrated manipulation that hurts everyone involved. Nate is heartbroken; her family is crushed; and, Carmen is ashamed.
Carmen needs help in the worst way. It has to be drastic, and it has to be now. That kind of help can only come from above. But is Carmen ready to make the necessary changes? Or is it business as usual for this girl who is used to getting her way, even when it means hurting those she loves best?
The Embittered Ruby is O’Dell’s second book in the Diamond Estates Series. It follows the popular first book The Wishing Pearl, released in 2011, and will be complete with the publication of the third in the series, The Shadowed Onyx, in 2013.
All three books shine a spotlight on a teen girl in crisis who reaches out a hand at the last minute and finds help at the Diamond Estates Home for Girls in Colorado. Ben Bradley, the director of Diamond Estates, and his wife, Alicia, started the home because they had experienced a crisis as a teen couple and they felt led to help girls. Ben said, “Sometimes teens need to be plucked out of their environment so they can focus on getting healthy.”
O’Dell is open about the fact that her own life was saved by a place like Diamond Estates as a teen, and her books give a lot of credit to the folks who helped her out. This is one of the many, many reasons I admire O’Dell and love this book series.
Carmen is real. She’s somebody we’ve all known. Maybe somebody we’ve been. She experiences that crash of self-realization when she sees that she’s the one who messed up. She’s the one who manipulated. She’s the mean girl. There’s no one else to blame. That’s a lonely place to be, and O’Dell handles the emotional aspect of self-awareness deftly. That part of Carmen’s story will touch both teen and adult readers.
O’Dell brings her readers into Carmen’s mind to show just how easy it is to get caught up in sin. Through Carmen, we learn big lessons like—just because we want something doesn’t mean we should have it; just because we feel like saying something doesn’t mean we should; and just because we feel like our life is unfair doesn’t mean we get to choose again.
With the help of the counselors, staff, and other girls at Diamond Estates, Carmen sees how interconnected we all are with each other. Families must work together. Not only that—we must find healthy ways to engage with boyfriends, friends, classmates, neighbors, and the world. Life’s tough all over and there are really no pat answers. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for a sixteen-year-old girl.
What I love best about O’Dell is that she never shies away from tough topics. She writes in that place so often ignored by inspirational YA fiction—the place where the teens who are hurting live. These are the girls who have tried, who have good hearts, but have made poor choices, and now they’re desperate for relief. Her message is soaked in authenticity and realism—the mark of an author who understands that heaping judgment upon girls who have messed up doesn’t really help them make things right. Instead O’Dell takes the hand of the hurting reader and leads her out.
The Embittered Ruby deals with a lot of heavy things—divorce, teen sex and its results, gangs, cutting, alcohol and drug use, and racism. Sounds like a lot for one novel to take on, but these issues are handled well and realistically. O’Dell doesn’t “go there” just to “go there.” And much of that, I believe, comes from muddling her way through some of these same issues when she was a teenager. She’s authentic, both in her depiction and in the solutions she offers.
I recommend the book for teens who are ready for tough topics. I would say ‘older teens,’ but I don’t want to stamp it with that label because I know there are ‘younger teens’ who are already faced with some of these issues. I also highly recommend the book to parents of teens, youth leaders and teachers, and adults who have a heart for teens who are hurting.
If you are considering the book for your daughters or friends, and you’re concerned about the tough topics addressed, read the book first, and see how O’Dell, more than anything, shows where true grace and mercy come from. I found the book to be refreshingly compassionate, honest, and unapologetic. ‘Real’ in that way teens today need real.
Laura Anderson Kurk is the author of Glass Girl, a YA novel, and its upcoming sequel, Perfect Glass. She blogs at Writing for Young Adults (laurakurk.com) and writes monthly features for Choose Now ministries and Katharos Now, a popular e-zine for teen girls.
She works with teen writers through the Write With Me critique group of NextGen Writers. She’s also a regular contributor to YA blogs and radio shows, and speaks to teens and young adults about the issues on their minds and in their hearts.