Saturday, March 23, 2013

Matthew Quick takes on bi-polar disorder in this fine novel.

The Silver Linings Playbook (304 pages, Sarah Crichton Books, $15), a film version of which was recently celebrated at the Academy Awards, is Matthew Quick’s attempt to tell, in a humorous way, the horror of dealing with bi-polar disorder in a tightly-knit family.

Pat Peoples comes out of the psychiatric hospital with a hazy memory of the last several years.  He does not remember why he was in the hospital or what happened between himself and his wife Nikki.  He just knows that he and she are spending some time apart—“apart time”—and that he has to make himself the best person he can be in order to be worthy of getting back together with her.

It becomes clear to the reader right away that this will never be.  His mother has hidden pictures of Nikki and any wedding pictures she had, and she refuses to talk about Nikki when Pat brings her up.  His therapist Cliff, too, at least until he builds trust, seems to want to shift his attention away from Nikki.

But the novel shows us that Pat can think of barely anything else.  When he meets the sister of his best friend’s wife, herself recently bereaved, he does not know how to deal with her, and when she starts to come on to him, he thinks she must not understand about his marriage.  In these first attempts at seduction, the two characters dissolve in tears together, and that should be a sign of how much they could share.

Tiffany does not give up: she jogs alongside Pat and she shows up at his house form time to time.  He enjoys talking to her, but he never imagines that they are anything but friends.

He builds intimacy with his family, especially with his brother, by getting back into the Philadelphia football team, the Eagles, and by trying to help his mother deal with his impossible father.  Pat’s father’s moods are run by the developments in football, and nobody can deal with him when the Eagles lose.

Another great football fan turns out to be Cliff, the therapist, and the bond they establish because of the game enables Pat to make some progress toward recovery.

Tiffany also helps.  In the first place, she promises to bring Pat letters from Nikki.  In exchange she asks him to dance with her in a local dance competition.  Pat resists, but he finally agrees, and every step he thinks is bringing him close to Niiki, is really bringing him closer to Tiffany.

The Silver Linings Playbook is a wonderful portrayal of the struggle for mental health.  It is also a vivid account of family love and family responsibility.  It has been made into a powerful film, but that’s because the novel is so wonderful to being with.

Matthew Quick

The Silver Linings Playbook is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Barbara Vine unfolds another lurid mystery

Barbara Vine is a pseudonym for Ruth Rendell, the renowned mystery writer.  She uses Barbara Vine for her racier tales, and this is certainly one.


The Child’s Child

Under the pen-name Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell writes a compelling mystery.  The Child’s Child  (320 pages, Scribner, $26) has a simple thesis: a gay man and his sister—Andrew and Grace Easton—argue about whether gay men had it worse when they were persecuted for sodomy, as was Oscar Wilde, than did unwed mothers, of countless number, who lost much else beyond respectability when they transgressed or were led astray.  Vicitmization in both cases is severe, and the disagreement cannot be won.  But since we are reading Ruth Rendell, the situation will replicate itself in fiction, and it does in spades.

For one thing, Andrew, who is gay, brings a lover into the house which he shares with his sister.  Grace does not like a thing about Andrew’s lover James, but she does acknowledge that he is handsome.  When Andrew and James witness a brutal gay bashing near a London pub, they are shattered.  The idea that they may have to testify in court sends James nearly bonkers, and he worries himself into a state of hysteria.

Meanwhile, Grace has started reading a manuscript of a recently deceased gay novelist that the publisher is unsure about whether to publish.  Set in the later 1920s, it concerns a case of a closeted homosexual and his tormented unwed but pregnant sister.  Because John, the brother, knows he will never marry, he agrees to pose as Maud, his sister’s husband, and protect her when the family has turned its back on her.  She takes John’s help, but she cannot brook his tentative attempts to express his sexuality with a friend.  This story ends tragically, as indeed it must, but then it also reflects back onto Grace and Andrew and their confusing lives together.

It is almost as if the earlier tale—the story within a story—haunts the later tale with its fatalism and brutality.  The contemporary figures have to decide whether they have any more clarity about experience than those earlier ones did.  It is frightening when they have to confront similar limitations, but it is even more harrowing when they actually manage to confront them.

Rendell has written a fine and deeply complex novel that will keep you thinking for long time after reading it.

Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)

The Child's Child is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sadie Jones captures life in 1912

This new novel builds on Sadie Jones’s reputation as a deft historical novelist.


The Uninvited Guests

Sadie Jones’s engaging tale of life before the First World War is intriguing on a number of levels.  The Uninvited Guests (288 pages, Harper, $14.99) tells the story of an almost well-heeled family struggling to keep Sterne, the country house they love.  As Edward Swift, step-father and husband, goes to the city to attempt to secure a loan, the remaining family members try to put a fine face on the situation and celebrate the birthday of Emerald, the oldest daughter.

There are three children in the family, Horace Torrington’s children, it seems: Emerald is a girl just poised on becoming a beautiful young woman; her older brother Clovis is twenty and utterly bored with his life, and especially with his new step-father who seems unable to connect with the boy; finally, there is Isabel, or Smudge, who is the creative child who spends her time drawing her animals and walking on the roof.

Emerald and Clovis understand each other, and when they go off together riding their favorite horses, they break through the tensions of family life and seem to connect.  Often, though, they are at cross-purposes because Clovis simply does not care.

Charlotte Torrington Swift is a nervous woman who loves the house and dreads its loss.  She has little faith in her husband’s ability to save the place. She spends a lot of the novel locked away in her room, letting the servants Florence and Myrtle keep the family fed and protected.

The shaky equilibrium of the family is shaken further when old friends—Patience and Ernest Sutton—visit to help celebrate Emerald’s birthday. These visitors both challenge the Torringtons with memories of the people they used to be and awake in them a kind of sexual desire they have not experienced before.  Emerald finds herself gazing into the bespectacled eyes of Ernest in hopes of finding the boy she knew, and in doing so, she falls deeply in love.  Clovis finds he wants to spend every minute with Patience, but he is not quite sure why.

As party preparations get under way, an odd assortment of people arrive at the house, with the story that there has been a train crash and a number of people will have to be accommodated.  The family shunts the group into a back room and tries to figure out what to do; but one of the group singles himself out as a special friend of the family.

Things go from bad to worse when the number of uninvited guests increases and the family begins to feel embattled.  Even worse, the guest who had seemed to single himself out as a friend becomes a terror, introducing the kind of drinking game that leaves everyone devastated, but not before he has attacked Charlotte and accused her of being unfaithful to her husband.

After they come out of this drunken haze, they manage to find beds for all the guests and even to cope with Smudge’s brilliant idea of getting her pony into the upper floors of the house.  Getting the horse down becomes a family enterprise that brings all the young people together.

In the morning the guests are gone and they begin to put the house back together.  Edward Swift comes home with a shocking tale of a train crash, and everyone has to wonder where those quests actually came from.  The real question, though, is whether Edward has found the money to save the house.

Sadie Jones

The Uninvited Guests is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.