Book Review: A Virtuous Woman by Kaye Gibbons

Title: A Virtuous Woman

Author: Kaye Gibbons

Genre: Literary Fiction

Number of Pages: 158

Rating: B

Recommended?: Yes

A sheltered young woman named Ruby is ‘saved’ from an abusive relationship by her husband, John Woodrow, being unceremoniously stabbed during a bar fight shortly after she catches him with another woman. Shortly afterwards she marries a uneducated, much older laborer named Jack Stokes which leads to a loving, if unconventional union between the two lost souls. This marriage is the focus of A Virtuous Woman, told from the alternating points of view of Ruby as she is dying of lung cancer and Jack in the wake of Ruby’s death.
This mostly works and is overall a very effective way to tell the story, but Jack and Ruby’s points of view blending at times, their voices sounded very similar. Considering they came from very different backgrounds and were opposite genders, not to mention their sizable age difference, I think there should have been a lot more separating Jack and Ruby’s voices from each other, because I often found myself trailing off and forgetting who’s point of view I was reading as I began a chapter.


I didn’t like the shift from first person to third person in the last chapter, and the novel ended very abruptly, with very little resolution. However, the two main characters in A Virtuous Woman are intriguing and there is some beautiful prose to be found throughout the novel. I especially liked  the passages relating to Ruby and Jack’s skepticism of organized religion, and their persistent belief that death is not the end of everything, but the beginning. It’s kind of a conundrum that a book whose characters abhor organized religion should open with a quotation from the Bible, but Kaye Gibbons makes it work, suggesting that there is more to faith than the cut-and-dry teachings of the church, but that spirituality can help a person deal with their mortality and suffering.


A Virtuous Woman is a short read, and in a way I think it could have benefited from being longer. The conclusion had a certain anticlimactic quality to it that made me go ‘that’s it?’ I felt like I had kind of missed something. I did think this book was an improvement over Kaye Gibbons’ debut novel, Ellen Foster. While I liked Ellen Foster, the prose in A Virtuous Woman is less forced and runs smoother. Like Ellen Foster, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the way Kaye Gibbons handled certain racial issues, and I’d argue that the character of Mavis in A Virtuous Woman is straight out racially insensitive,  but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book.


This novel has some disturbing moments, including a plotline where a young man hangs a mule and later takes a young woman out on a date and beats and rapes her, but ultimately it wasn’t as dark as a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading lately (that should tell you something about the stuff I’ve been reading lately!) At the center of the novel is the love story between Ruby and Jack Stokes and the almost childlike Jack’s difficulties looking after himself after his wife passes. I really would have liked to have gotten a better idea of what happened to Jack after the novel ended, I’m not a fan of open-ended or abrupt endings. While  A Virtuous Woman isn’t one of my favorite books I’ve read this year, I found it to be a pretty solid, character-driven read and I definitely would be interested in reading some more of Kaye Gibbons’ work in the future.


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