What happens when a ‘Brown girl’ goes missing?
Claire Jimenez’s debut novel follows a Puerto Rican family in Staten Island who discovers their long‑missing sister is potentially alive and cast on a TV show
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Claire Jimenez grew up in a Puerto Rican family in Staten Island and Brooklyn, New York, and storytelling and books were always part of her life.
With an MFA from Vanderbilt University and a PhD from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she is the author of a short story collection called Staten Island Stories (Johns Hopkins Press, 2019), which received the 2019 Hornblower Award for a first book from the New York Society Library and was named a finalist for the International Latino Book Awards, a New York Public Library Favorite Book about New York, and Best Latino Book of 2019 by NBC News.
In this collection of loosely linked tragicomic short stories, Jimenez shines a spotlight on the imagined lives of Staten Island, often called the forgotten borough. She travels across time to explore defining moments in its history, from the 2003 Staten Island Ferry crash and the New York City blackout to the growing opioid and heroin crisis, Eric Garner's murder, and the 2016 presidential election.
Four years later, Jimenez goes back to Staten Island with What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez (on sale March 7, 2023), a debut novel in which she focuses on a Puerto Rican family in Staten Island, the Ramirezes, who discover that their long-missing sister is potentially alive and cast on a reality TV show. They then set out to bring her home.
“It’s really an examination of loss and trauma, the ways in which Black and Brown women's bodies are depicted on TV and the ways in which missing Black and Brown girls, especially in the 90s, were not given a lot of attention,” the author explained in an interview with the University of South Carolina, where she is currently an Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies. “That’s basically the premise of the novel.”
The story starts with the disappearance of 13-year-old middle child Ruthy Ramirez, leaving the family scarred and scrambling. One night, 12 years later, oldest sister Jessica spots a woman on her TV screen in Catfight, a raunchy reality show. She rushes to tell her younger sister, Nina. This woman's hair is dyed red, and she calls herself Ruby, but the beauty mark under her left eye is instantly recognizable. Could it be Ruthy, after all this time?
The years since Ruthy's disappearance haven't been easy on the Ramirez family. It’s 2008, and their mother, Dolores, still struggles with the loss, Jessica juggles a newborn baby with her hospital job, and Nina, after four successful years at college, has returned home to medical school rejections and is forced to work in the mall folding tiny bedazzled thongs at the lingerie store.
After maybe seeing Ruthy on their screen, Jessica and Nina hatch a plan to drive to where the show is filmed in search of their long-lost sister. When Dolores catches wind of their scheme, she insists on joining, along with her pot-stirring holy roller best friend, Irene. What follows is a family road trip and reckoning that will force the Ramirez women to finally face the past and look toward a future — with or without Ruthy in it.
As the publishers say, What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez is a vivid family portrait, in all its shattered reality, exploring the familial bonds between women and cycles of generational violence, colonialism, race, and silence, replete with snark, resentment, tenderness, and, of course, love.
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