Review: The Ringer by Jenny Shank

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I received a bound galley of The Ringer, a debut novel by Jenny Shank, from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Many thanks to The Permanent Press and to LT for the chance to read and review this book.

I decided to copy the summary from the publisher’s website, because when I tried to write it myself, I felt like I was saying a lot but not getting too far. So:

Sidelined from coaching his sons’ baseball team because he can’t resist hollering at loafers, lollygaggers, and space cadets, Ed O’Fallon hopes focusing on his daughter’s tee-ball team will calm his temper. But just as Ed prepares to guide the Purple Unicorns to their best season, his work as a Denver police officer changes his life forever.

O’Fallon bursts into a home on a no-knock warrant, expecting to find drugs, but instead encounters a man pointing a gun. Ed kills Salvador Santillano, a Mexican immigrant he had more in common with than he could imagine. Worse, Ed learns his commanding officer made a grave mistake on the warrant that will force everyone in Denver to take sides.

Separated from her husband Salvador after their worst fight ever, Patricia Maestas discovers the police have killed him. Certain her husband never sold drugs, Patricia pushes to find out the truth behind the fatal raid, even while trying to keep her volatile, grieving son Ray from following a shady friend into a north-side gang.

But Ray isn’t just any disaffected adolescent —- he’s a left-handed pitching phenomenon who throws a blistering fastball. Patricia hopes signing him up for a competitive league will keep him away from danger, but instead it puts them on a collision course with Ed, whose sons play in the same league on a rival team.

Patricia and Ed are unaware of the interconnections between their lives until events on the baseball field draw them together and challenge their preconceptions.

I found The Ringer to be engaging, with an interesting mix of characters and a plot that moved at a good pace. The book is written in the third-person, but presents the story from both Ed and Patricia’s perspectives, in alternating chapters. Because of this narrative choice, the reader knows that Ed isn’t an evil racist cop, but a decent guy who was doing his job. He feels bad after the incident, but when he learns a couple of days later that the warrant had the wrong address on it, he feels a deepening remorse. Ed begins to question himself and his occupation, and his marriage grows strained as well.

From the other side, we see Patricia digging for more information, wanting to clear her husband’s name, and also being pulled by her mother and other people into a committee to “fight the city.” The reader knows that Patricia wants to get to the truth, but she’s reluctant to step into a spotlight. They’d been separated for several months, but we learn that Patricia had hoped to reconcile with Salvador. She partly blames herself that he wasn’t living with her and their two children — and her troubled son sometimes blames her, too.

As you can tell from the title and the plot summary above, the other big story in the book is baseball. I requested the book because the novel as a whole sounded intriguing, but what caught my attention was the description of Ed as one of those sports parents who’s too involved, too loud, too critical, who seem to take all of it a little too seriously. My husband is not loud, but both of my sons (who play basketball and baseball) would agree that he’s quite critical. As a sports parent, I knew there would be things I could relate to in this book. Although the boys in the novel are a couple of years older than my sons, with more skills, and in a more competitive league, that part of the book was familiar to me.

Shank packs a lot into the novel without making it feel too “stuffed.” In addition to the life and work of police officers, the grief of those touched by violence and sudden death, and the world of young men’s baseball, the story looks at present-day race relations, and the subtle shifts of power in local politics. There are a lot of little “everyday” moments in the book that illustrate the joys and stresses of family life. I loved that Patricia’s daughter has an action figure of John Elway that everyone refers to as “El Johnway.” I was right there with Ed and his family when their basement flooded. Patricia with her kids in the grocery store, Ed with his sons watching TV late one night — Shank moved the story forward, but chose good scenes to pause for breath.

There are a few less positive things I have to mention. First, strangely, although I enjoyed reading the book, I didn’t feel compelled to pick it up every day. That’s partly a reflection of the moods I’ve been in lately, but also, it’s not the kind of book where you’re going, “I can’t wait to find out what happens next!” Second, the writing is good, but I think the plot, the story, was stronger than the writing. I did mark a few passages that impressed me, and since this is a first novel, I think Shank’s writing is sure to get even better. Third, there were a couple of questions that didn’t seem to be answered, for example, the question of whether Salvador actually had a gun, whether Ed really did hear gunfire coming from someone’s weapon, before he fired his own. Those nagged at me a little. Last, the book’s description states that “events on the baseball field draw [the two families] together and challenge their preconceptions.” But really, it seemed to take forever before the parents — Ed and his wife Claire, and Patricia — figure out their connection. My copy of the book has 349 pages, and Claire puts it together first, on page 242. The pacing of the book is good, but that part just took longer than I’d expected.

I also found one mistake that really confused me, that hopefully is corrected in the final publication. (As I said, I received a bound galley.) Patricia isn’t sure if Salvador had an affair, because he took occasional trips to Mexico that sometimes lasted weeks, and she’d found a picture of him in his personal effects with a woman she’d never seen. On page 209, we learn the woman’s name is Carmelita, and on 215, that she has a daughter named Gracielita (or Graciela). On 216, the letter is signed from Carmelita, but on that same page we have a quote, “‘He says Graciela lives far away, and comes to town about once a month.'” So I’m thinking, Isn’t Graciela the daughter? When the woman appears in the story later, by telephone, it’s Graciela who’s the mother, and Carmelita is the daughter. This is the kind of thing that you can’t hang on the author, when it’s the publishing/editorial staff that must have messed up, but damn, I was confused!

Overall, I enjoyed The Ringer a lot. I think it’s a solid debut novel, and I hope it gets some positive attention. Jenny Shank could have a good career ahead of her! I’m interested to see what she writes next, and what other subjects she decides to tackle.

© All the parts of my life 2008-2015.

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