Friday, March 5, 2010

Wish Her Safe At Home

After reading the repeated and enthusiastic recommendations of Stephen Benatar's novel Wish Her Safe At Home over at Booklust, I had to see what all the fuss was about, and there's been a good bit of fuss over this book, as it turns out. Originally published in 1982, when it was hand-sold by the author in British bookstores on weekends and submitted for the Booker prize, it was reissued in paperback in 2007 by New York Review Books Classics. Although the novel is set in the 1980's, the reissue cover photo is of a woman sitting at a table that could date anywhere from the Victorian era to the 1950s.

For those of us who, like the novel's heroine Rachel Waring, have memorized every detail of the Elia Kazan version of A Streetcar Named Desire, the sinister parallels begin early and go deep, from Rachel's delight in saying she's had her looks compared to Vivien Leigh's to her eventual declaration that she has "always depended on the kindness of strangers." But Rachel's rendition of the line doesn't make me cry, as Blanche's always does. Rachel is nothing if not endlessly cheerful.

Her childhood is more likely to make me cry than her eventual fate. The poor little girl who had been taught that she must never accept a gift the first or even the second time it is offered is a pitiful figure:
"my mother was in hospital one Easter and I was staying with the elderly couple who lived upstairs. Well, on the Sunday morning there wasn't any egg beside my plate--of course, I hadn't been expecting one--but what there was, was a packet of Ross's Edinburgh Rock. When I took my seat I saw it and felt jubilant; you didn't get so many sweets in those days. Yet I didn't say anything because, again, I had been told never to assume that something was yours until you'd actually been given it. But after a while Mrs. Michaels, who was a funny little woman, spindly-legged, slightly hunchbacked, jumped up from the table with a small cry of distress and exclaimed to her husband as she went, 'It was meant as a surprise. So why isn't she pleased?'
Well, I sat there in shocked silence for a minute, gazing dully at the gift, and then I said quietly, 'But I am. Very.' Yet by then Mr. Michaels had gone after his wife and there was nobody left to hear.
There was nobody either--but this I was glad of--to see the silent tears which trickled down my cheeks.
And I didn't know what to do with the rock. I carried all the dirty dishes to the sink and washed them and put away the cereal packet and the butter dish and the marmalade but in the end I just left that packet on the table...it simply disappeared and wasn't spoken of again."

Stories like that come out of Rachel at the most wildly inappropriate times and in unlikely places because, having left a flatmate whom she wasn't overly fond of and who doesn't seem to miss her very much either, she doesn't really know anyone. She talks to people in shops and workmen she hires to renovate the house she's inherited. She's the kind of old lady who talks to a stranger who sits beside her on a train about uncomfortable subjects, the kind who takes an enormous amount of pleasure in her clothes, forever acquiring and describing and suiting her mood to the state of them. At one point, when a child accidentally spills on her skirt, it ruins Rachel's afternoon, and although she doesn't come completely unhinged enough to whisper "blot gently" like Vivien Leigh does as Blanche, she does rush home with an acute awareness of people laughing at the wet stain. But nothing discourages Rachel for long; she just sings a showtune and puts on an even more determined face.

You want to like her; you start out identifying with her aspirations and disappointments. Eventually, though, you come to realize that Rachel is living in a world of her own. If wishing her safe at home would work, you'd wish it every time she goes out in public and makes a fool of herself. Even at church her behavior is so odd she makes people uncomfortable:
I prepared myself quietly and without fuss to listen to his address. Firstly I smoothed my skirt out beneath me and after I'd resumed my place, carefully crossed my legs. There was so little room: even the arranging of one's hem required some element of expertise! Then I smiled with shared expectancy at those around me. (They didn't seem too friendly.) Lastly I cleared my throat and looked all eager and attentive. I even bent forward slightly so that he should realize I intended not to miss a single word. Vicars, after all, were only human: they too unfolded and grew happier with encouragement. 'It's just like talking to your flowers,' I whispered to the woman next to me.

But like Rachel herself, I was reluctant to face the fact that the only people who show any interest in her company might merely be using her. I fought as hard against it, nearly, as Rachel herself, even after the moment one of them said to her "I think you need someone to look after you," thinking that it was an offer of help, rather than a Stanley Kowalski-type maneuver to be rid of her entirely.

I sympathized with her desire to surround herself with flowers, to sing, and to wear the most beautiful dress she's ever seen, even past the point where, from an outsider's point of view, at least, she has clearly taken to haunting her house like Miss Havisham, in a tattered wedding dress.

Rachel Waring answers a question I've always had in the back of my mind about Blanche DuBois: would it have been so hard to accommodate her desire for magic? The answer is yes. Seen from the inside, her desire makes a dreamy, romantic kind of sense. Seen from the outside, however, such desire is ludicrous, irritating, and eventually just too much to have to put up with on a daily basis.

And the dangers of being able to give into one's individual desires are growing as the opportunities for living, working, and even shopping without having any contact with other people are expanding. This is one thing that contributes to the novel's timeless feel. As Jessa Crispin notes in her review, "with reports of how isolating modern life in the digital age has become, the book, nearly three decades after its original release, couldn't be more relevant." Certainly Rachel's recollection that one of her most becoming outfits had previously been criticized as an attempt to dress up "mutton as lamb" and her continued admiration of her landscaper's bare chest through the emptiness of her days will stay in my imagination through the rest of my day as I work at home and make my trip out to buy groceries at the scan-it-yourself counter.

Without other people to measure yourself against, how do you know when you've gone over the edge from delightfully eccentric to completely delusional? This novel asks that question and shows what it's like to not be quite sure of the answer.

16 comments:

Aarti said...

I was so excited to see you read and review this book! I feel a little silly now because while I know Rachel was very obsessed with Blanche, I didn't notice so many parallels between their characters, and their ultimate tragedy.

Rachel's childhood WAS so sad. And she was always just so kind to people, just a little... off. I felt so bad for her. But then got frightened as she didn't really grow out of that, but went deeper and deeper into it.

Jeanne said...

Aarti, it's silly to be as obsessed with Blanche as some people are (reddens).

It seems like she's always kind to people, but one thing I like about the novel is my growing suspicion that a lot of what she means as kindness comes across as being nosy, interfering, or just intrusive (like an old lady giving my child an old linty cough drop out of her used-kleenex filled pocket).

Aarti said...

Warning to other readers-
SPOILERS ABOUND BELOW!!!

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Yes, absolutely. I think the reader is always slightly off-kilter because you can't know what she THINKS and what she actually SAYS. This especially in the church scene, I feel- what did she actually say out loud there?! And what was she just thinking? I don't know.

Another friend of mine asked if she was pregnant with Roger's child at the end. That never even occurred to me- I thought she had just taken the whole man-in-painting thing a bit too far, but I wouldn't be surprised. I strongly disliked Roger and his manipulative ways (at least, I think they were manipulative- I don't really know!). And her lawyer, too. But then, if there was a middle-aged woman wandering around in a wedding dress without a groom, I'd probably be worried, too...

farmlanebooks said...

Aarti persuaded me to buy a copy too. I hope to read it at some point in the next month and will be interested to see what I think about it.

Jeanne said...

Aarti, My take on the question about Roger is that the character is and will die a virgin. (She's already past menopause when she moves to Bristol.)

Jeanne said...

Yeah Farmlanebooks, we want someone else to talk to about it!

Aarti said...

Yay, Jackie!! I'll be so thrilled to see you review it, too :-)

I am glad we are in agreement over the Roger thing. Ugh, he's so dirty, though, that I wouldn't be surprised.

What did you think of her friend from London? I thought that Rachel was scared of becoming her friend.

Jeanne said...

Aarti, About the friend, maybe she could have been afraid. I thought she was being like her mother, hyper-critical.

Aarti said...

Rachel was being hyper-critical or the friend? I think the friend was exactly what Rachel would call a Debbie Downer and probably reminded Rachel of her previous, non-fabulous existence, and so she wanted to put distance between them. Also, the friend asked uncomfortable questions like, "Do you have a job?" which I don't think Rachel appreciated.

I felt sorry for her friend, but I think in the story, Rachel saw her as the person Rachel would have been without her aunt's gift of the house- lonely, bitter and poor.

Jeanne said...

I thought Rachel was being hyper-critical of Sylvia, but like the way you describe it--Sylvia reminded her of everything non-fabulous about existence. I can't resist thinking about Marlon Brando as Stanley tearing the paper covers off of the bare light bulbs.

Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) said...

I've never heard of this book, but it sounds really good! It's hard to read characters who are so out of touch with their surroundings and what their behavior does to other people, but it can also make for a good story. I'm definitely looking for this one.

Jeanne said...

Kim, as others have observed, this is one of the most unreliable narrators you'll meet in fiction!

Nymeth said...

This sounds amazing and scary and yes, very relevant today, when it's so easy to lead such an isolated life. It's been on my wishlist ever since Aarti reviewed it and I must get it before long.

Jeanne said...

Nymeth, it is a bit scary because it shows how easy it can be to let yourself go--not in the way Rachel scorns-- physically--but mentally!

Jenny said...

Wish my library would get this book in! They've had it on order for several weeks now, and I'm beginning to think it will never arrive. I'm glad you enjoyed this! I definitely want to read it!

Anonymous said...

nice comments on the book. i'm readinng it now and thoroughly enjoying it. the introduction brings up the point that it's not really like anything else in fiction - save marginally don quixote. i don't entirely agree: aren't there elements of shirley jackson - especially "hill house" - in it? and, perhaps, a little of oliver onion's "beckoning fair one" (though the main character is a man)... anyhow, raitch's obsession with the house, and it's "atmosphere" is creepy and delightful, no matter its parallels or provenance.
xix uncle ld