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Sweet Ruin a Sweet Success
A former West Orange resident loves to set her scenes in the town she knows well
by Maria DaSilva-Gordon
Article is from Matters Magazine


For Cathi Hanauer, author of the novel Sweet Ruin, the imperfections of monogamy have always held an interest: how monogamy is a challenge under even the best of circumstances, and how half of all marriages end in divorce, often with adultery involved.

This isn't to say Hanauer is anti-matrimony: Married for 15 years and the mother of two, she points out that the concept of seeking passion elsewhere has been around in literature for years. "I don't think it's a new story," she said of her plotline. "I think it's my version."

Hanauer wanted to create a situation where readers could sympathize or at least understand why someone would commit adultery even in a happy marriage. Sweet Ruin accurately captures the challenges of marriage and motherhood. Set in suburbia, the book also explores the temptation of adultery and the process of recovery from loss.

The inspiration for the novel stemmed from her exper-ience as editor of the New York Times bestseller The Bitch in the House: 26 Women Tell the Truth about Sex, Solitude, Work, Motherhood and Marriage. Women wrote about what happened after marriage, and how passion ebbs and flows and sometimes turns elsewhere.

Boston Magazine has called Sweet Ruin, now in paperback, "a slow burn that bursts into a page-turner." Elle praised Hanauer for "handl[ing] her heroine's experience with nuance and emotional realism."

These praises come as no surprise to those who knew her during her local childhood. At West Orange High School, she demonstrated a persistence and go-getter attitude: Along with taking high school AP classes, Hanauer was a twirler and varsity tennis player, both during the fall semester. Rather than lessen her load by dropping an activity, Hanauer successfully managed both. According to WOHS guidance counselor Kathleen Flynn, Hanauer's former AP English teacher and twirler advisor, "She was going to do everything she wanted to do. She's the type of person who can do anything she puts her mind to."

Indeed, since those high school days, Hanauer has fashioned an impressive trail of achievements including an American Society of Magazine Editors internship at Seventeen and graduating magna cum laude from Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications, where she received an award for magazine journalism. Her MFA thesis for the University of Arizona became her first novel, My Sister's Bones. She has written for magazines such as Elle, O and Redbook, taught writing (at the University of Arizona, the New School in New York and privately), and for seven years penned an advice column for Seventeen.

For Flynn, Hanauer's success as a writer seemed inevitable. "Her writing was definitely superior," Flynn recalls. "She had a command of the language and an ability to articulate in a more profound way than the average person."

Although she and her family live in Northampton, Mass., Hanauer still views herself as part New Jerseyian and part New Yorker. In fact, she says, a visit to see her parents in the same West Orange house where she spent her childhood is truly "going home." A graduate of Gregory Elementary and Roosevelt Middle Schools, Hanauer treasures memories of a home town that was lively and fun, with an Italian flavor and good neighbors, where she could ride her bike to Essex Green and to the Eagle Rock Diner. "West Orange was a good town to grow up in," Hanauer fondly recalls.

In her writing, Hanauer returns to her Jersey roots, using West Orange as a source of inspiration for the fictional town of West Berry, where My Sister's Bones is set. Flynn says she was "flattered beyond belief" when she discovered one of the characters in the book references her and her teachings.

In Sweet Ruin, the setting is a mixture of Maplewood and Montclair, with a bit of Northampton thrown in. Hanauer's affection for the New Jersey of her childhood is captured in an anthology she has edited, Living on the Edge of the World: New Jersey Writers Take on the Garden State, to be published this summer by Touchstone.

She's now working on a young adult novel she started with her daughter a few years ago, which may again reflect some of that love of her childhood. One thing is certain, Hanauer will bring to it the drive and passion she has shown throughout her life - from her high school days juggling academia and activities to today's successful writing career.

Maria DaSilva-Gordon teaches journalism workshops throughout New Jersey to students in grades four and higher and is a free-lance writer.

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