Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Review: Playing House by Fredrica Wagman



This is a narration of a woman’s movement in and out of various stages of madness, linked to both choice and circumstance. The key factor in her descent is her incestuous relationship with her older brother. There is also a history of familial mental illness, and instability. It is a complex and multilayered tale where the main character tells of the many convoluted and morally questionable reasons why she has “lost her grip with reality”.

The story is told in the first person where the narrator never really names herself and is not sequential and moves back and forth through time. As the narrator clearly loses her contact with what is real, the writing becomes a free association of emotions, metaphors, and actions. 

Originally published in 1973, this issue is the 35th anniversary of its primary printing. The book was an international best seller at the time, and has a forward by the award winning American author Phillip Roth as well as a reader’s guide at the end of the book for groups and discussions.

My Thoughts:

Critically looking at Playing House, you can see why in the early 70s it was a best seller. On the “tail end” of the sexual revolution it was just addressing another sexually taboo subject,  but beyond what was and still is considered socially unacceptable. Today with a swing to a more conservative view this subject becomes even more difficult for many modern readers to digest.

In a purely intellectual and academic sense this novel includes many literary, metaphorical, and psychological  elements which can be of interest to those who desire to discuss them. Some of these themes/issues include:

  • monogamy  and the image and involvement of the swan
  • marriage partners chosen for security rather than passion
  • the nature of dominance and submission and their role in sexuality
  • religious stereotypes and metaphors and a link with madness
  • morality seen as grey vs. black and white
  • the shadow of ill-made choices
  • madness and memory
  • apathy/depression as a indicator to the beginnings of madness
  • women and madness – hysteria
  • art and writing as catharsis
  • mythology and fables i.e.. the golden archer and the turtle
  • Stockholm Syndrome where the abused over time empathizes with/loves the abuser

All in all this novel is not one that most readers will “like” or even enjoy. It is a difficult, intense, and emotional read, dealing with subjects we would mostly likely choose to ignore, but one where the reader will be affected. There is no doubt that Ms. Wagman captures madness well, and within the main character’s ramblings little nuggets of insight are revealed.

The Turtle couldn’t stand lies, he didn’t understand them, not a bit. To him a lie was just that, something untrue, evil, or wrong. But lies aren’t always, you know. Sometimes lies are art too, sometimes lies are creating, sometimes lies are wonderful, they can lift and soar and take you all away.

Highly recommended for book group discussions whose interest are of an intense level. As stated above there is a lot to discuss. I did not “like” this book but give it 4 stars because of it’s metaphorical connections, its intense emotional content, and its ability to make the reader feel some very difficult emotions.

Here are some links to other reviews and perspectives of Playing House:

Fredrica Wagman has written 6 novels – Mrs. Hornstien, The Lie – A Novel, His Secret Little Wife, Playing House, and Peachy, and Magic Man, Magic Man. She lives in NY with her husband and has 4 grown children.

For more information and to purchase this book from Amazon please see Layers of Thought’s Preview of Playing House.

Please stay tuned for an interview with Fredrica Wagman. Which could be very enlightening considering the subject matter she addresses in her two books reviewed here.


DCMetroreader said...

This is a fabulous review!

I just finished this novel and will be posting a review in the next day or two. All in all I thought it was very well-written, but I had fair amount of difficulty with certain topics. I kept thinking I would have loved to have discussed this book with someone, so I guess that is the mark of a good book (at least on a certain level).

You have beautifully laid out the discussion topics. I would only add two more -- the Swan as a symbol for lost childhood/innocence (ala Rosebud in Citizen Kane) and the color yellow -- it was everywhere in the novel (yellow hair, yellow light, yellow dress, yellow grass etc.). I never figured out what it symbolized, but it was a running theme.

I look forward to reading your interview with Wagman.

Also, I would love to link to your review when I do my review --with full credit --for the discussion topics (but I won't unless you allow this).

Lisa said...

Hey Shellie! I have an award for you. You can check it out here if you like!

Unknown said...

DC -
Thanks so much for the awesome compliment.

As readers and Americans we are often looking for quick and easy, light and fluffy , and want to look away from the truly difficult.

Your added example is why discussing a book can be so important - one brain can only get so far. I did not know that the swan symbolized innocence as well. I have not read Citizen Kane.

You are more than welcome to link any of my reviews or posts - credit will be greatly appreciated.

Thanks for commenting and I look forward to your review as well.

Unknown said...

Lisa -
Your so sweet and I have yet to reciprocate.
Thanks a bunch I will check it out now. :)

TheChicGeek said...

I love your honest review, Shellie. It sounds like a really thought-provoking, interesting and extremely difficult book to read. I think it is one I would enjoy. I will have to come back to discuss it with you after reading it. I love your discussion points. Many birds mate for life...the swan is one of them. So they are monogamous and do represent purity and innocence. A great choice for a title by the author in light of the subject matter.
Here's a link for the meaning of colors:

Maybe that will give further insight into the author's use of it....very interesting.

Fantastic review, Shellie!

TheChicGeek said...

PS: I mean the cover, not the title...interesting use...LOL

Unknown said...

Kelly aka Chic Geek -

Thanks for the compliment, the color link, and the insight.

Its funny how you can miss stuff that's right in front of your face or is really simple. That why talking about complex things help.

This is really great with both you and DC giving me more to work with here. It will help me with some of the questions for the author.

Laurel-Rain Snow said...

I'm delighted to read your review of this book, as I have added it to my Wish List.

Having been a young adult in the 70s, I can relate to this time in life. And having spent more than three decades as a social worker, dealing primarily with child abuse, including sexual abuse, I am always intrigued by the topic. (I am weird in this sense, as most of my colleagues shy away from these subjects in their "personal lives.").

After I read it, I will connect with you again on the book!

Unknown said...

Laurel -
Thanks for the comment and coming from one who is a professional makes even more valuable.
This is a tough read, you will not go away untouched.
Looking forward to your thoughts.

DCMetroreader said...

I've never read Citizen Kane either (not sure that it was ever released in book form). I was referring to the Orson Wells movie.

Thanks Chic Geek for the color link. I checked out yellow and it may be that it symbolizes decay or sickness. Still I really don't know.

Thanks Shellie so much for the link permission.


Unknown said...

Kim/DC -
Thanks I could have searched all over for the book.

As for yellow it also symbolizes youth and happiness. Not quite the right fit either.

Anonymous said...

I stopped by to check out your blog and to comment on your Walden quote -- such a beautiful sentiment, and so true.

I haven't read this particular book, but I may be able to answer something posted in one of the comments: Yellow might represent the short story, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1892 which details a woman's descent into madness. It's a very thought-provoking read, especially for the time in which it was written. Just a thought.

Unknown said...

Nicole -
Thanks for the insight - excellent connection!

DCMetroreader said...

Shellie if you haven't already done your interview with the author maybe you could ask her what she meant with her use of color in the novel?

PS My review is going up tomorrow.

Unknown said...

Kim/DC -
Looking forward to your review.
I have not gotten the interview questions finished yet so I will definitely include that one. They will get sent out tomorrow - had a bit of a vision problem for the day so computer work has not been easy.
Let me know if you have any more questions for her, so they can be in included as well.

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