Title: Playing House
Author: Fredrica Wagman
No. of Pages: 160
First Released: 1973
Synopsis (Courtesy of B&N): 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.”
Comments and Critique: Warning – this book is NOT for the faint of heart or squeamish! Honestly, there were times where it was almost too much for me (and I read Lolita and Lady Chatterley’s Lover with no problems whatsoever and spent two days wandering the Red Light district in Amsterdam and loved every minute of it). I found that the madness of the main character was so intense that I could only read a few pages at a time. However, I was equally disturbed and fascinated by the tumultuous mind of the heroine and found that no matter whether I was reading or not, the book and the main character constantly haunted me.
I warred between absolute horror at her relationship with her brother and wanting to enfold her in my arms and try to heal her. The entire book is a cry for help; she struggles to be normal but realizes that she cannot. She idolizes and hates her brother, and those two emotions play out in everything that happens to her. She has more bad experiences that would make any person insane, which sparked my need to nurture and protect. However, her relationship with her brother and subsequent behavior violates some of our most innate cultural mores, and it is difficult to overcome those feelings of revulsion. Upon objective reflection, the reader can realize that these opposite feelings are the point because if the reader is feeling such warring emotions, just how violent are the feelings of the heroine?
In simple terms, this book is completely haunting and gut-wrenching. Take this line, “I didn’t love anyone, and that was death” (p. 89). It punches you in the stomach with its simple need. The entire book was like that – simple statements that packed such an emotional punch that leave you gasping for breath, wanting to take a break but needing to continue to read. I’ve never read anything quite like it.
As I said, this is a tough, tough book to finish. Incest is never easy, but some of the main character’s behavior as a result of that incest is also quite disturbing. It takes a strong stomach and open mind to get through the book but well worth it in the end. Based on what I read here, I’m less inclined to judge people for their decisions because you never know what is driving them to make them.
This is the second book I’ve read by Ms. Wagman, and I was not disappointed. I highly recommend her books, although I again caution you that her subject matters are not easy. Thank you to Julie Harabedian from FSB Associates for the opportunity to review this book!