I was amazed last year to discover Jane Hamilton. I'm really glad I disregarded my initial impulse _not_ to read _Book of Ruth_ because it was an Oprah pick (it's a prejudice I have, and I should know better than to make gross generalizations). It's like nothing I've read since _The Sound and the Fury_, and although I (understandably) hesitated to mention Hamilton and Faulkner in the same thought, there it is.
For once, my ability to put my thoughts into words may fail me in describing the engrossment with which I enjoyed this novel. A surprise from a friend of 4 years' standing was her telling me that she had read it, too, and that, while she grudgingly admitted that it was "probably well-written" (I'd never heard her make a value judgment on her reading before--she was always amazingly self-deprecating about her "beach-level" reading habit), it was also a "downer." I wasn't hooked in my reading of _Ruth_ at that point, and almost decided to abandon the effort based on her comment. I'm an avid reader, but I don't _look_ for depressing novels.
The novel is not depressing. It's beautiful in its evocation of what p.c.-speech calls "marginal" characters. The power with which the effects of the mother's (and, horrifically, a father's) personality are conveyed is very affecting. The optimism, and--if the pun can be pardoned--the ruthlessness with which the daughter (and a son) nonetheless perseveres in her/his attainment of all the riches that every life offers are conveyed with no less impact. The novel truly amazes in its depictions of the squalor, hope, passions, and horror unthinkably (and unthinkingly) wrought upon _present_ human relations by _past_ human relations. A strong reader will come away from _Ruth_ with some of the optimism, in wonder at the persistence of the human need for love and the many forms it can take. A reader less strong might put _Ruth_ aside without being able to finish it. Both will remember the experience.