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.
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.