OK, so odd couple stories are nothing new. Holmes & Watson. Oscar & Felix. Burt & Ernie. Mulder & Scully. Gilgamesh & Enkidu (look it up). There's something that resonates in these sorts of pairings, the idea that we often need to cooperate with people who are seemingly our polar opposites in order to discover new aspects of ourselves. So on the surface, the tale of independently wealthy Ruby Cooper befriending homeless Credenza R doesn't seem like anything new.
But the best pairings of this sort occur when both members are odd, extreme in opposite directions. Laura Thomas wisely casts Ruby not as a worldly-wise everywoman, but rather as a Howard Hughes-ian style recluse who spends her spare time in an otherwise abandoned building crafting hummingbirds from garbage. It is, therefore, completely plausible that she would befriend a homeless woman. Likewise, Credenza isn't some naïve runaway living off the streets, but a clever survivor belonging to a homeless community just as valid and complex as any society to which the average reader might relate. While both women struggle with their own unique problems, we are never presented with a platitude about how one or the other lifestyle is the "right" way to live.
The story begins with a chance encounter between Ruby and Credenza on a subway platform. Credenza has never left the tunnels beneath the New York subway system, due to a severe allergy to sunlight (which may or may not be psychosomatic), and so employs Ruby to make shopping trips for her. After several such trips, Ruby finally dares to follow her friend back to a vast community of homeless people who live far beneath one of the wealthiest cities on Earth. Perhaps inspired by Ruby's daring, Credenza finally works up the courage to take on a journey of her own. However, her journey doesn't take her to the surface (as most readers might predict), but rather further into the tunnel systems, into a secret network of shelters whose ultimate purpose is disturbing to both women.
It's probably inaccurate to classify Credenza and the other subterraneans as homeless, since we see repeatedly that they have not only manufactured shelters with lighting and plumbing; but that their community has its own laws and means of enforcing them. Each of the characters introduced has his or her own backstory and it would be easy to imagine Laura Thomas returning to this setting to tell further tales of Ben, Ghostface & Ali or Leopold the conspiracy nut. The community she describes is based off the real-life communities existing beneath New York (which don't officially exist).
As a whole, I enjoyed this book, although there were elements which seemed to ring false (Ruby Cooper is a twenty-two year-old millionaire social network designer who shows no interest in computers or social networking). The second half of the story presents an adventure setting normally reserved for post-apocalyptic fiction, but which is likely to actually exist in one form or another beneath the streets we walk. This is the first novel by Laura Thomas and I will certainly be watching for future work by this promising new author.