'Ruin Falls' creates intense family thriller

| Saturday, July 5, 2014, 5:18 p.m.

In her second novel, Jenny Milchman delivers an intense family thriller that touches on all the hot-button fears of a parent while keeping the threat of violence on the periphery of the story. Although “Ruin Falls” lags a bit in the middle, Milchman's strength in creating characters who grow and change keeps the story on track.

Liz Daniels, her husband, Paul, and their children, Ally, 6, and Reid, 8, are taking a road trip to visit Paul's estranged parents in rural upstate New York. It is the children's first trip ever and the first time the couple has been away from their small farm since their kids were born. At home, Paul, a professor at a small agricultural college, insists the family live as much off the grid as possible, rigidly following an organic way of farming, forbidding the children to have most snacks, including gum, and staying close to the house.

Liz, especially, isn't prepared for this trip. She sees danger and conspiracies at every turn — she's sure that a truck following too closely or a mentally challenged bellman who doesn't look anyone in the eye mean harm to her family.

Uncharacteristically, Paul suggests the family spend the night in a hotel and, even more unlike him, spring for a suite with the children using one room. The next morning, the children have vanished. While the police search the hotel and grounds, Paul also disappears.

Convinced that this is a family matter and no laws have been broken, the police stop the investigation. But Liz refuses to give up. She searches for every clue, no matter how small, that will tell her where Paul went and why he took the children.

Milchman imbues “Ruin Falls” with a complex, yet believable, plot that is as much a journey of Liz's maturation as it is a hunt for these missing children. Liz must go from being “a woman who'd turned to other people all her life for sustenance and direction” to finding her inner resolve and strength, for herself and for her children.

“Ruin Falls” also carefully examines a marriage in which neither person really knows or trusts the other. How can Paul be such a popular professor with a devout, cult-like following at the college, yet be so despised by his parents and so unbending with his family? When Liz finds the answers, she also will find what has been missing in her life.

Although “Ruin Falls” stalls in the middle, delving into a couple of scenes that stretch credibility, Milchman pulls her story back on track.

Milchman, who won the Mary Higgins Clark Award for her debut “Cover of Snow,” extends her storytelling skills in “Ruin Falls.”

Oline H. Cogdill is a contributing writer for the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.).

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