All the press for With or Without You, a debut memoir by the young writer Domenica Ruta, newly available in paperback, compares it to lyrical memoirs about difficult families like Mary Karr’s Cherry and Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle. And those are very good comparisons, indeed. But while I was reading it, to be honest, I couldn’t stop thinking about Amy Sherman-Palladino’s cult girlie TV classic, Gilmore Girls.
Now, Gilmore Girls took place in a magical Fake New England where young mother Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) raises her brainy daughter Lorelai “Rory” Gilmore in the town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut, dropping references obscure and urbane (Dawn Powell, Grey Gardens, Two Fat Ladies, Billy Jack) as Rory goes to prep school and has dreams of Harvard. Like the Gilmore Girls, Domenica — known as “Nikki” to her family — is a young daughter to a young single mother, Kathi, and sometimes it’s like Nikki, the daughter, is the responsible, parental one. The Rutas live in a ruined yet beautiful cottage facing a river in Danvers, Massachusetts (real New England), a town nearby the notorious Salem. And, like Lorelai, Kathi had the tastes of a culture aficionado, or snob — she would keep Nikki home from school if The Godfather was on TV. And these tastes would shape the future of Nikki’s life.
But Gilmore Girls was a fantasy, rooted in the fact that Lorelai Gilmore was a slumming heiress, playing at poverty; Ruta’s memoir, on the other hand, has real danger. The Rutas were poor, much of the time. Sometimes Kathi sold drugs, and most times she gave them to Nikki like candy — OxyContin was referred to as “Oscars” in their house — and the lifestyle was unhealthy for a young girl, leading to an outsider’s coming-of-age and future difficulties with drugs and alcohol.
It was a difficult yet loving childhood, and a writer with a strong voice emerged from it. “Like many people who have crossed over an imaginary line to pursue higher education, I have since lost my ability to even fake an accent,” Ruta writes. “Only in primitive emotional states, when I’m screaming at someone I love, or saying the Lord’s Prayer, does a vestige of my old voice bleat through.”
Ruta is funny, profane, and loving throughout, writing into the corners of her memory with an anthropologist’s eye and recounting her childhood in a way that makes some beauty out of truly difficult circumstances. Ruta grew up too smart and too poor in Danvers, and she recounts it all with a voice that’s worth following.