Close Reading Snapshot: Big Boy by Ruthie Knox

After having it recommended to me by multiple people whose reading taste I trust, I finally picked up Big Boy by Ruthie Knox, and this 77-page slip of a novella has ended up being one of the most impactful bits of reading I’ve done this year. The setup is fairly simple, but delightfully unconventional: the two MCs are strangers who meet up once a month for trysts in a train museum, where they role play characters from different historical eras.

Meet me at the train museum after dark. Dress for 1957.

When Mandy joins an online dating service, she keeps her expectations low. All she wants is a distraction from the drudgery of single parenthood and full-time work. But the invitation she receives from a handsome man who won’t share his real name promises an adventure—and a chance to pretend she’s someone else for a few hours.
She doesn’t want romance to complicate her life, but Mandy’s monthly role-playing dates with her stranger on a train—each to a different time period—become the erotic escape she desperately needs. And a soul connection she never expected.
Yet when she tries to draw her lover out of the shadows, Mandy has a fight on her hands…to convince him there’s a place for their fantasy love in the light of day.

Cover image and blurb from the author’s website. CWs can be found in Leigh’s review here.

There are multiple passages I could have chosen that show off the spare lyricism of the prose. But what I kept coming back to with this book is how it fit so much into a one-hour read. By the time you reach the end, you’ve traversed months of timeline and know and care about both characters deeply (despite almost never having seen the hero as “himself” until the end). I tend to assume that kind of temporal and character development is primarily the work of plot and pacing and structure- but in this book, it’s the work of prose, too. Like in this passage, where Mandy thinks back on one of their encounters:

I think about him in the days between our dates. I figure out what I’m going to wear when I see him again, who I’ll be. The anticipation is so sweet, sometimes I wonder if it’ll make my teeth ache eventually, turn my stomach, and that will be that.

We’ve been on nine dates in nine months.

I didn’t sleep with him until the fifth date, and I might not have done it then, except it was wartime, and my sweetheart had died in the Eastern Theater. I’d decided not to waste any more opportunities. When he kissed me in the stateroom of General Eisenhower’s train, I pulled him down to the floor by the lapels and asked him to make me forget.

The first thing I love about this passage is how it juxtaposes the details of Mandy and Tyler’s “real” selves with the characters they role-play. There’s nothing in this passage, stylistically or structurally, that suggests there’s a different truth value to the statement “I didn’t sleep with him until the fifth date” (which we assume to be true of Mandy) and “my sweetheart had died in the Eastern Theater” (which we assume to be true of the character she’s created). The idea that Mandy and Tyler reveal their true selves through role-play is integral to the storyline, and the prose does a lot of work to make the reader feel what it’s like to slip between personalities, what that reveals and what it keeps hidden, by weaving them together in single passages, or single sentences.

This interweaving technique is also part of what makes the book feel so temporally expansive: it recreates the feeling of traversing nine months in only a few pages by telescoping the distant past of the Second World War with the present of the 21st century, through the space of Eisenhower’s stateroom: which existed both in the past of Mandy’s character and the present of the trysts at the train museum.

Another juxtaposition I appreciate is how the sentences can use seemingly-mundane details to set up deep emotional revelations. We see this at the end of both full paragraphs above. “What I’m going to wear when I see him again” is a fairly rote logistical detail, “who I’ll be” gets at the core of Mandy’s struggle to define who she is. Similarly, the last sentence uses the details of the train to evoke the logistics of their lovemaking, but builds to a crescendo of “make me forget,” deftly evoking the real-world problems they are both trying to escape from. It lends real emotional depth to two people readers don’t have a lot of time to get to know.

It’s hard to put my finger on, but something about the way many of the sentences combine logistical details with more poignant notes puts the purely-details sentences into relief. “We’ve been on nine dates in nine months” is an unremarkable declarative sentence, but it stands out to me so starkly- not only the way it’s typeset on its own line, but also how much unspoken weight it carries in contrast to the sentences around it. One of Mandy’s primary struggles in the book is coming to terms with being a single mother to her late sister’s child, and her life is incredibly difficult in a logistical sense. We learn so much about her in just those eight words: that she keeps meticulous track of schedules, that she’s mentally holding on to the time she gets with Tyler, that when she thinks about it directly, she can’t quite say to herself what it means. The starkness of the sentence lends a rhythm to the passage, but it also draws the reader in further, to try to excavate the emotions underneath.

If you pick up Big Boy, you’ll also find:

  • A story you can truly read in one sitting, and that will stay with you for days (and I’m guessing probably weeks) afterwards.
  • Reflections on the classic romance themes of knowing yourself/knowing others that are baked right into the structure of every chapter and every sentence.
  • A heroine who is unsparingly honest about herself in a way that is both uncomfortably real and yet somehow comforting in its relatability.
  • A hero who seems like a classic mysterious romantic enigma, until a turn-on-a-dime final reveal makes you realize how much you knew about him all along (truly, it’s remarkable).
  • Hot train sex, and some really great clothing descriptions.

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