NATIONAL BESTSELLER *Named a Best Book of the Year by Time, Huffington Post, Kirkus, and more * A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice * A Roxane Gay Audacious Book Club Selection * A Marie Claire Book Club Pick
A surreal novel with “a dark, delicious edge” (Time) about a woman in Silicon Valley who must decide how much she’s willing to give up for success—from an award-winning writer whose work Roxane Gay calls “utterly unique and remarkable.”
A year into her dream job at a cutthroat Silicon Valley start-up, Cassie finds herself trapped in a corporate nightmare. Between the long hours, toxic bosses, and unethical projects, she also struggles to reconcile the glittering promise of a city where obscene wealth lives alongside abject poverty and suffering. Ivy League grads complain about the snack selection from a conference room with a view of unhoused people bathing in the bay. Start-up burnouts leap into the paths of commuter trains, and men literally set themselves on fire in the streets.
Though isolated, Cassie is never alone. From her earliest memory, a miniature black hole has been her constant companion. It feeds on her depression and anxiety, growing or shrinking in relation to her distress. The black hole watches, but it also waits. Its relentless pull draws Cassie ever closer as the world around her unravels.
When she ends up unexpectedly pregnant at the same time her CEO’s demands cross into illegal territory, Cassie must decide whether the tempting fruits of Silicon Valley are really worth it. “Lurid, tense, and compelling” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review), Ripe portrays one millennial woman’s journey through our late-stage capitalist hellscape and offers a brilliantly incisive look at the absurdities of modern life.
Reading Group Guide
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This reading group guide for RIPE includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Cassie is burnt-out, sleep-deprived, possibly pregnant, and struggling to stay afloat at the well-funded Silicon Valley start-up she crossed the country to work for. She powers through with cold brew, cocaine, and the occasional call home to her loving but brusque father. All the while, she is accompanied by a miniature black hole that has been with her since birth. The black hole reacts to Cassie’s mental state, and as she begins to doubt everything she has worked toward, the embodiment of her anxiety and depression threatens to consume her. With razor-sharp social commentary, Ripe tells the story of one woman’s unraveling in the face of the pressure cooker that is our late-capitalist society.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The novel is divided into sections based on the structure of a pomegranate: exocarp, mesocarp, membrane, and seed. Why do you think Etter organized the novel in this way? How do these terms relate to the sections they represent?
2. Talk about the “Believers” and how they function within the novel. According to Cassie, “Believers” are people who “were born to be” in Silicon Valley and “come from the Ivy League and throw their entire beings into technology” (page 6). What do you make of this class of people Cassie describes?
3. In order to keep up when life is too demanding, Cassie divides herself into her “true self” and her “false self.” She often lets her false self take over to handle a presentation, a coworker, or catty acquaintances. What do you think about Cassie’s method of splitting herself into two in this way? What does it say about how she views herself?
4. To create a stronger sense of camaraderie, Sasha, a cofounder of VOYAGER, has Cassie and her coworkers divulge their most traumatic experiences to one another. This backfires for Cassie, who then feels actively antagonistic toward the group. How else does this “forced intimacy” come up in the novel? Does Cassie have genuine relationships with any of her coworkers? What about her friends?
5. Throughout the novel, Etter juxtaposes scenes of disturbing violence with Cassie’s mundane yet toxic workplace environment (a man self-immolates on her way home from work, she witnesses a crow devouring a duckling outside her office window, her train is delayed after a work event due to someone jumping onto the tracks, and so on). How do these scenes set the tone of the novel? How does living with this contrast affect Cassie?
6. Discuss the way that Etter blends scientific research into the novel. What effect does she achieve by interspersing Cassie’s “Notes & Research” about black holes into the timeline of the story?
7. Consider the black hole that accompanies Cassie. Though its presence mostly baffles her, there are times she describes it as being protective. How does the black hole contribute to your understanding of Cassie? Of the events of the novel? Do you think the black hole has a physical presence or is it all in Cassie’s head? How does your experience of the novel change with each interpretation?
8. “When I was young, I thought God was a giant eye in the sky, spying on the world below” (page 209). Cassie serves as both the watched and the watcher at different points in the story. What role does being observed or observing play in the novel? What does this suggest about the nature of surveillance or self-surveillance?
9. What role does love play in the novel, if any? Cassie offers a few versions of love when describing her relationship with her family members. “My mother stung and stung . . .” Cassie says. “Some part of love must be the stinging” (page 15). But about her brother, she says, “I loved him in that silent way, the way where you don’t even have to talk about it” (page 62). How do we see Cassie’s understanding of love manifest? What impact does it have on her romantic relationship?
10. Cassie experiences a series of personal crises over the course of the novel, but the book is also set against the backdrop of several global ones—raging wildfires, soaring rates of unhoused people, and a rapidly spreading virus. How did these catastrophes influence Cassie’s personal journey and mental health? What parts of her experiences remind you of your own, whether in the early days of 2020 or today?
11. The novel is ripe with pomegranate imagery and metaphors. Why do you think Etter chose this particular fruit? How is this symbol working in the novel?
12. Discuss your interpretation of the ending of Ripe. What did you make of Cassie’s decision-making leading up to this point? What is your ultimate takeaway after the events of the novel?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Museums hold a certain importance for Cassie and serve as a place of self-reflection in the novel. Visit a local history or art museum by yourself and meditate on the experience.
2. Take a look at the works listed in the Selected Biography and consider reading some of them to supplement your understanding of black holes.
3. Read Sarah Rose Etter’s previous novel, The Book of X—whose protagonist is also named Cassie—and discuss the thematic crossover between the books. Do you think there is a connection between them?
Sarah Rose Etter is the author of the chapbook Tongue Party and The Book of X, winner of a Shirley Jackson Award for best novel. Her work has appeared in Time, Guernica, BOMB, the Bennington Review, The Cut, VICE, and elsewhere. She has been awarded residences at the Jack Kerouac House, the Disquiet International program in Portugal, and the Gullkistan in Iceland. She earned her BA in English from Pennsylvania State University and her MFA in fiction from Rosemont College. She lives in Los Angeles. For more info, visit SarahRoseEtter.com.
Why We Love It
“Reading Ripe felt like stumbling upon Eden’s forbidden fruit: a key to unlocking language I didn’t have to describe those dark nights of the soul but also the tender moments of love and desire that help us survive them. Sarah Rose Etter brilliantly contrasts the absurdities of modern life with an unsettling element of surrealism—a black hole that stalks our protagonist through her soul-sucking start-up job. The plot cuts like a knife through the protective exocarp of a pomegranate to its bloody center, from the ergosphere surrounding a black hole over its event horizon, hurtling you toward the mysterious singularity at its center. When you make it there and back (a guarantee fiction offers us that deep space cannot), don’t be surprised if life feels a little different, here on the other side of Ripe.”
"Surreal . . . visceral . . . Ripe has a dark, delicious edge." —TIME
“Sharp . . . absorbing . . . unforgettable . . . Etter’s exquisite prose powers the book. . . . [She] expertly diverts the novel from neat or didactic tropes. . . . [and] accomplishes what we seek in fiction: a deeply human connection.”—New York Times Book Review
"A dark look at the underbelly of capitalism. . . . Sarah Rose Etter is a prophet for the sad girls." —NYLON
“A novel like no other. . . . Etter’s work is undoubtedly surreal, but then so is American life today. She knows how to channel its contradictions because she lives them. . . . Ripe hits very close to home.” —Los Angeles Times
"A masterclass in creating tension. . . . This is the kind of novel that reminds us that the apocalypse is now. Dystopia is here." —Roxane Gay
"It’s impossible to not feel pulled into Sarah Rose Etter’s Ripe, a beautifully paced 2023 novel featuring an intimate inner voice and a surreal, sinister plot. . . . At times darkly funny, this is a razor-sharp and honest portrayal of late-stage capitalism in the tech sphere." —Huffington Post, Best Books of 2023
"An explosive narrative of a woman coming undone as the world burns. . . . A deliciously bitter irony pervades. . . . A scathing look at corporate greed and its many dire consequences, this is deeply felt and cathartic.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"At once grim and playful, Ripe succeeds where other dystopian novels sometimes fail, by emphasizing the personal and particular agony of a single frazzled rat in the capitalist maze." —Philadelphia Inquirer
“An existential page-turner . . . super dark and very funny . . . Etter yanks you into Cassie’s deep, meaningless void, and I’ve never had a more enjoyable time wading through this specific level of hell.” —Jezebel
“Etter opens Ripe with an onslaught of visceral imagery that stays at a fever pitch all the way through. . . . In a weird way, reading Ripe feels like being hit over the head with a cast-iron frying pan, then willingly going back for more. . . . clear-eyed . . . harrowing . . . powerful." —San Francisco Chronicle
"Etter tells this gothic tale of twenty-first-century anomie, isolation, and despair in potent, fast-paced passages that are rich with fairytale-esque drama and sharp with parable-esque restraint. . . . cathartic, addictive, delicious." —Chicago Review of Books
“A poignantly tragic, absurdist view of the 'late-capitalist hellscape' that is grind culture. . . . [A] glorious sucker punch of a second novel. . . . It’s a razor-sharp commentary on the relentlessness of tech culture and millennial striver conditioning.” —Shondaland
"A tense, vivid dystopian view of a capitalist America. . . . A searing satire of corporate culture and how we deal with the world around us when it feels like it’s burning . . . thoughtful and necessary." —Our Culture, Best Books of 2023
“[An] astonishing tour de force. . . . Masterfully juxtaposing 'wild amounts of wealth' with 'extreme poverty and displacement,' Etter examines deep inequities in an image obsessed, capitalist society. Her biting social commentary layers horror with dark comedy, using vivid imagery and striking language to great effect."—Booklist (starred review)
“A fresh voice, Etter, winner of the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel for The Book of X, will undoubtedly cement her place in the literary scene with this one.” —Zibby Owens, Good Morning America
“HOLY SHIT, this book wrecked me!” —Samantha Irby, New York Times bestselling author of Quietly Hostile
"A lurid, tense, and compelling novel. . . . Etter builds a lush and decaying landscape around a woman with an impossible affliction." —Kirkus (starred review), Best Books of 2023
"Sarah Rose Etter is a wonder, and this novel is a knife to the heart." —Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties
"An absolute must read if you love an unravelling main protagonist. . . . Unsettling, tense, and funny . . . we think you’ll love this one." —Glamour (UK)
"One of the best novels of the year. . . . Etter is proving to be one of the most talented novelists of her generation." —Colorado Sun