Book Review: Domenica Ruta’s “With Or Without You”

Published 11/8/13 by:

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Memoir is a genre that lends itself to being criticized for seeming embellished, self-accolading or an over-share. These are only three of a myriad of insults and criticisms that the memoir author faces. Well, guess what? Domenica Ruta could care less. Her brutally honest memoir entitled “With Or Without You” chronicles two decades of surviving with her drug addicted mother Kathi, in a place filled with townies Kathi is either related to, owes money to, or both. In her debut, Ruta has established herself as someone with talent, humility, and unadulterated honesty. It’s my sincere hope that she’s an author here to stay.

Despite her best efforts, Ruta’s faithfulness to her hometown of Danvers, Massachusetts is embedded in her. Her parents, both townies, and teenagers when she was born, never leave, and she’s often left wondering if she’s capable of getting out. She identifies so much of her heritage by living in an apartment on the family “compound” alongside her grandmother by the river: “These animals, this river – it all belonged to us. I decided this the way that only children and dictators assume things, by pointing a finger and saying it is so.” Ruta mockingly remembers her grandmother thinking they were “just like the Kennedys” and it’s this type of lack of awareness and identity that I think makes her story so compelling. Ruta grew up in an apartment with her mother in a place that had trash piled so high it made the front porch concave. For her grandmother to compare her self-proclaimed trashy family to the Kennedys just makes you smirk. What made this smirk-worth to me, is that I know these people. I know their pride, and how its foundation really has no connection to reality. In Massachusetts, these folks exist, and while they may have many faults, they can be quite charming in their approach.

One aspect of “With Or Without You” that made the story that much more compelling to me, was Domenica’s desperation for knowledge, despite having no so-called “academic mentors” in her life. She admits whole-heartedly that “if it had been possible to lap words off an aluminum can spilled out of a dumpster, I would shamelessly have gotten down on all fours.” And I believe her. While Domenica’s academic prospects seem hopeless, her drive lands her a scholarship in the most unlikely of places. This scholarship makes Kathi feel like she’s hit the social climber lottery. Throughout the memoir I felt like Domenica was directly addressing Kathi, and admitting to her that she worshiped her and pined for her love for so long, but everyone has to grow up. By the end of the novel the reader is made aware of their relationship status, and you experience how much Domenica has grown since she thought that her “mother was the one who called in the tides” of the Porter River.

This book will strike you in moving ways. It will appall you. It will remind you. It will irritate you. It will challenge you, and it will motivate you. You may end up dreaming of having a daughter that blindly adores you the way Domenica adores Kathi, but you also may vow to never have someone like Kathi poison anyone in your circle of family and friends. Domenica Ruta is a writing force, and her tornado winds? Well, she got them from Kathi.

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