After devouring The Keeper of Lost Things earlier this year, I was really excited to get into Ruth’s second book, The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes, in the hopes that her writing would be just as fabulous. After finishing the novel, I have mixed feelings about it…
Our protagonist Masha is learning to live after a heart-breaking tragedy which occurred 12 years ago. Once a lively, independent woman, she is now a shell of herself, enveloped in grief and guilt. She seeks comfort and refuge in her local Victorian cemetery and practises drowning at the town’s lido… until she meets two women who will change the way she looks at the world. Sally Red Shoes, is a slightly nutty, potty-mouthed, retired opera singer, while Kitty Muriel is an utterly fabulous, larger than life seventy-something, with all the glamour of an old Hollywood star.
Alongside this, we follow Alice and her son, Mattie, as they struggle to come to terms with Alice’s breast cancer. As we watch Masha grow, we come to understand what it is that made her this way and just why we’re reading about Alice and Mattie.
Now, I fully expected Ruth’s second novel to be a little wacky – her first novel was and it was a wonderful, eccentric read, full of life and brilliant characters. Similarly, Sally Red Shoes had some brilliant characters, and the novel was packed full of subtle humour, piercing sarcasm and beautiful metaphors. I also appreciate that, like Ruth’s debut, this book deals with the more uncomfortable issues of cancer and grief, while simultaneously being a light and entertaining read, making these topics more mainstream than before.
“After twenty lengths I climb out of the pool and peel off my swimming cap. I have a lot of hair, and, squashed under a skin-tight dome of Lycra, it gives my head an odd, misshapen appearance, a bit like a cauliflower.”
However, I found the book itself really hard to get into; the first 100 pages were great and I enjoyed delving back into her undeniably gifted writing; she has a really special way with words and a unique way of finding joy in the little things. Yet, the middle of the book faltered; there was a distinct lack of plot progression, with Hogan focusing instead on character development (which is fine too). By the final chapters, I had really lost interest in where the story was going, not to mention that I could see the ending from a mile away…
In addition to this, I didn’t really get why we were reading about Alice and Mattie the whole way through without any mention of them in the blurb or any explanation of their role in the book from the outset. As a consequence, they felt completely secondary to Masha the entire way through.
I also felt at times that there were just too many token “wonderfully weird” characters thrown in for good measure. Unlike The Keeper of Lost Things, which was more refined, I felt that The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes was a little chaotic, with Hogan trying to achieve too much. Much of the time, Hogan seemed to concentrate more on her characters and the ‘eccentricity’ of the story than where it was going, and by the end, this was really visible. Ultimately, I would have liked to see the loose ends and extra characters integrated into the plot a little better.
That said, I still enjoyed reading her second book, and am fully aware that an author’s second novel tends to be the hardest, with both the writer and readers comparing it to the first. Sadly, this is what I tended to do and for me it just didn’t live up to the joy and careful execution of her first book.
Star rating: ***