Laura Ruby's Bone Gap is a compelling and whimsical work of fiction that is hard to define in terms of genre. I think "magical realism" probably works best, but there are such heavy notes of fantasy and mythology that it almost doesn't seem to do it justice. It's a novel about love and seeing people for who they really are, it's about the burden of beauty and how our perception of things can impact others.
The story depicts a summer in the life of Finn O'Sullivan, as he's about to enter his final year of high school. He lives in the titular farming town of Bone Gap, with his brother Sean. Their father died in an accident years before, and their mother left them to move in with a rich orthodontist in Oregon, so it's just the two of them. That is, until a mysterious and beautiful Polish girl named Roza appears in their barn. Finn and Sean quickly gain her trust and over the months that she's with them, they develop a deep relationship. This is particularly true for Sean, who falls deeply (and mutually) in love with her. When the story begins however, we discover that Roza mysteriously disappeared in the spring, leaving no trace and only one witness - Finn.
When we meet Finn, he is buried under the guilt that he feels for witnessing Roza's abduction. You see, not only does he feel that he didn't do enough to stop it from happening, no one believes his story. The townspeople of Bone Gap (an eclectic group themselves), have always had a few names for Finn - Moonface, Sidetrack, Spaceman. He always seems to have his head in the clouds and never looks people in the face; he always seems a little bit sidetracked by whatever's going on in his own head. So when Roza disappears and Finn starts telling a story about a man whose face he can't remember, but who moved like a cornstalk twitching in the wind, nobody thinks he's telling the truth. Everyone assumes that Finn was in love with Roza, just like his brother. She was breathtakingly beautiful, so how could he not be? They assume that Roza took off on her own and Finn is either covering her tracks because of his devotion, or lying out of jealousy for what she had with Sean.
Of course, this could not be further from the truth. Finn loves Roza like a sister, but his heart belongs to a girl named Petey - the local beekeeper's daughter who is considered ugly by the people of Bone Gap. Over the course of the summer, Finn and Petey fall in love and she inadvertently helps him discover a secret of their town - it contains gaps in the world, gaps that someone could slip through and disappear forever. When Finn finally decides to go after Roza once and for all, these gaps are the key.
I don't want to give much more of the plot away, because I think it's a book best discovered on your own. I've left a lot of the "magical" parts out, because these offer some of the best surprises of the book. I'm not a huge fantasy fan, but the way that Ruby weaved these fantastical moments "in the gaps" with the reality of the life in the town, and imbued the whole thing with folklore and mythology is pretty extraordinary. Not to mention how well developed and compelling the characters and their relationships were.
This book really examines the idea of beauty and how important it is to really look at and see people. Roza has spent her whole life being told how beautiful she is, but also suffering because of it. She longs to find someone who sees her for her, and not for her face. Conversely, Petey once thought she was beautiful and unique looking, but now feels the opposite after having been told her whole life that she's ugly. Finn falling in love with her instead of Roza because he can actually see the two girls, beyond what most people see, makes a great statement (particularly so when combined with a twist regarding Finn's oddness near the end of the book). The setting of the small town really enhances this, as the people of Bone Gap are constantly making assumptions about people and telling stories that are not based on fact. They take things for face value, and it can take a lot to change their collective mind.
I could go on and on about this book, I absolutely loved it. Technically, it's young adult fiction but I didn't even realize that until I saw the sticker on the spine after I had finished reading. I think it does send a message that would be important for teenagers to hear, but it's also just a beautifully told story that will have you hanging onto every last one of Laura Ruby's words.
For other books like Bone Gap, check out:
Challenger Deep by Neil Shusterman
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley