Monday, August 24, 2009

Book Review: Playing House by Fredrica Wagman

Title: Playing House

Author: Fredrica Wagman

Pages: 160


When Playing House appeared in 1973, Publishers Weekly hailed it, 'A probing descent into madness that will fascinate the same audience that appreciated I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.' This nationally bestselling story of one woman's struggle with the lasting effects of a childhood sexual relationship with her brother shocked American readers; it remains a literary work of enduring quality and value. In his foreword Philip Roth writes, 'The traumatized child; the institutionalized wife; the haunting desire; the ghastly business of getting through the day - what is striking about Wagman's treatment of these contemporary motifs is the voice of longing in which the heroine shamelessly confesses to the incestuous need that is at once her undoing and her only hope.'

Alright, here's the thing: this was a sort of personel dare for me. When I saw a post on BookBlogs about how they were distributing review copies of Playing House, I was a bit hesitant. This is completly out of my comfort zone--hell, it's probably out of everybody's comfort zone. It's about an unnamed women, living in a haze of what was once real life after years of a slightly abusive, sexual relationship with her brother. The prose is hard to describe...a combination between childlike confusion and detached surealism, laying out the women's slow, painful dessent into madness like a thin, muddy blanket. No one in this book is given a name--the closest it comes is the nickname the narrator has for her husband, the Turtle. It is the women, her brother, her mother, her father, her shrink, her children, her husband. Never named, giving the entire novel a hazy feel to it, perfectly reflecting the narrator's state of mind.

It's remenisent of other novels such as Girl; Interupted and The Bell Jar, in that it demenstrates a women's fall to insanity during the late sixties, when insanity was basically banishment. Except Playing House touches an entirely new spectrum hardly understood in today's society (much less the sixties), taking something taboo and avoided and slapping it in the reader's faces, forcing them to look and see and hear what the narrator has to say, no matter how much we don't want to. This isn't to say that the entire novel is an expanded "The More You Know" segmant. It isn't. It's not preaching about how "this is a real problem, we must save da children!!!!!" or anything like that. It really is a character piece, a love story if your able to look that deep into it. In no way does the narrator show remorse for her relationship with her brother because he's her brother; it's her trying to find something like him, after they have grown and are unable to continue anything with each other and they must move on. She walks through life, feeling nothing, wanting him and missing him and thinking of him, hating him and loving him all at once to the point where her mind snaps like a rubber band stretched too far.

I have to admit; this book was something of a chore for me. Not because I didn't enjoy it, or because it was poorly written or even because of the disturbing content. It was because it was just plain sad. The depth and madness in Ms. Wagman's narrative style is so all-consuming, so draining to read, that I found myself pausing every few pages and taking a huge breath. The word's surround you, forcing you to keep reading and reading and reading even though you want nothing more then to forget the entire scenerio exists. Which is strange, because the relationships in this book are...well, they're not really there. The narrator feels nothing for anybody; not for her husband, her children, her mother, her dead sister. Not even her brother, by which this entire story is built around. Everything is a whirl-wind of emotions that don't lead to anything. Like she knows what she should be feeling, but she can't bring herself to feel it. This novel is by no means endearing or relatable; sure, she seems rather friendly with a swan taking refuge first in the pond behind her childhood home, and then her bathtub as she moves in with her future husband. But even that is like reading about two bricks interacting; neither really acknowledge the other as entities, just things that are there and they have to live with. I don't know if this is making sense, but I'm not saying this is a bad thing. In fact, it just adds to the utter dread that cloaks every paragraph, every sentence, every word.

Playing House in one word: haunting. Utterly, completly haunting that will leave you sitting up at night and wondering how the hell something as disturbing as this novel could keep you reading until the very end. In only 160 pages, Wagman creates characters that have seemingly no personality other then each other, only in a way that works. She was able to pack more emotion and meaning in one sentence then most authors can in 500 pages. The whole thing just...worked. It worked so well I doubt anyone will be able to get it out of their heads any time soon.

Now, I'd be lying if I said I'd reccomend this to everyone. That'd be really fucked up. I'd hardly reccomend it to myself, upon reflection. In some countries, Playing House is shelved in the 'restricted' section. It's disturbing in a way even Stephan King can't pull off. It explores things that we as humans tend to avoid. It's raw, uncensored, pure feeling trapped inside madness trapped inside the shell of a human living inside the pure audacity of her actions. It is not for everyone, hardly anyone. There are few people in the world who could stomach it, I'd say, and I'm barely among them. So, no, I won't reccomend it. This is a book for adults, over-eighteen, and even thats a stretch. I'm unable to place a rating on it, because it's so undefinable I would be doing a grave injustice to put it into a 1-10 category. All I'll say is this; Playing House is a haunting, memorable novel that will endure the centuries to come, if not for the lovely prose then for the subject it deals with.

So, that's that.


Lori said...

Fabulous review, Dannie. Kudos!

Sarbear said...

Thanks, Dannie -- it sounds like an emotionally exhausting, yet interesting read.

Jenny said...

Great review. I have this to review too and I'm not sure how I'll feel about it. I thought it was a book about a character who was sexually abused, yes, but I started reading the forward or whatever, introduction, when I got it and it was saying how it is about a woman who was always looking for someone just like her brother. I really just glanced at it but it definitely sounded weird. Hopefully it's a fast read.

Jessica (BookLover) said...

Awesome review! This book is on its way to me. Now I'm kind of looking forward to it. :)

I have an award for you! I hope you don't mind. :)

Faye said...

Awesome! this book looks really good.

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