Saturday, December 5, 2009

Review: Wish Her Safe at Home

Wish Her Safe at Home
Author:  Stephen Benatar

Favorite Line: 
There are things money can’t buy, things like fresh youth to replace the one you’ve hardly been aware of, things like lost opportunities which might conceivably have led to nothing, but which on the other hand might have led to fulfillment and serenity and new lives and passionate involvement… And human nature being what it is this is the version you’ll unquestionably believe.

This review is based on an advanced reader’s copy.

Plot Summary: 
Rachel Waring is a middle-aged, plain English woman stuck in a dead-end job in 1980.  She has never been in love, never been married, both her parents are dead and she has very few friends.  Thus, when she receives notice that she inherited her great-aunt’s beautiful old mansion in Bristol, Rachel is thrilled.  She visits the house, falls in love with it, notes that it has one of those famous blue plaques on it signifying it was lived in by a (minor and no longer remembered) member of the anti-slavery movement, and decides to move in, leaving her past behind her in London.

She plants a garden with the help of an attractive younger man, begins writing a biography of the 18th century (minor and no longer remembered) anti-slavery advocate and goes about being friendly and cheerful to everyone she comes across  As the story continues, readers have the sense that not all is quite right with Rachel.  She invents a new life- even a new past- for herself as she goes “quietly and genteelly crazy.”


I mulled for a long time about whether or not to include this book as part of the Women Unbound Challenge, and decided to go for it because Rachel Waring is a woman who fights passionately for what she wants out of life- even going so far as to create a new life story.

In the introduction to this book, John Carey states, “…there are really only two alternatives open to [Rachel]… She chooses the other alternative, which is to pretend that her ambitions have been fulfilled- that is to say, to go mad.”  Carey thinks (and I agree with him) that, confronted with the decision to either continue her real, drudging existence in London, or to create a new, exciting one in Bristol, Rachel chooses completely to go with the exciting one.  Even though that way lies madness.  So instead of living the life fate has dealt her, she makes one up for herself and goes for it, all the way.

And one can’t help but admire her for doing so.  Her early allusions to her life thus far- painfully awkward and very lonely- make the reader cry out for her.  As you read the story, you can't help but think Rachel got a raw deal, and that if circumstances had been different, she might very well have had the ideal life  she alludes to in the quote I shared above. 

The story is told entirely from Rachel’s perspective.  You are in her head the way that you are in your own, listening to the internal dialogue.  Except that while you inhabit your own head, you know what you say out loud and what you keep to yourself.  Not so here.  Rachel is a masterfully written unreliable narrator.  There are times when you are not sure what she says aloud and what she says in her head (and it seems sometimes that she doesn't quite know what she says out loud, either).  You are not sure if the people she interacts with- the vicar, for example, or the chemist- are as horrible or boring as she makes them out to be.  At the same time, you are frightened for her of her (possibly overly-helpful and over-eager?) neighbors Roger and Celia- are they honest?  Are they gold diggers?  How can one be sure?

Stephen Benatar’s ability to pen this novel successfully points to what a fantastic writer he is.  As readers, you have unadulterated access to Rachel’s thoughts.  When she is uncomfortable, you are uncomfortable.  When she is sad, you are sad.  And there are times when her thoughts are so exactly what yours might be on the occasion.  Or what any woman’s might be, if she is single and believes that she might have missed a chance at happiness.  For example, Rachel has this thought when she encounters a dumpy and unhelpful librarian:

I saw that she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.  I automatically liked her and despised her and felt sorry for her and was glad.

Benatar’s sentence made me smile in commiseration with Rachel- I've had the same feeling before.  She puts it perfectly, and while some of her thoughts are unkind, it is impossible not to feel completely engaged by her.  She is so realistically flawed.

At times, I worried about Rachel’s vulnerability:  she felt so hurt when people acted as though she were insane, and she was so sensitive to people's reactions.  And I felt just as flustered as she did when people looked at her strangely because, being in her head, I could not always tell whether she had said her thoughts out loud or if people were looking at her oddly for another reason.  So confusing, but so well-written!


It’s painful and sad to see a woman invent a completely false life for herself and tell everyone over and over again how happy she is as though repeating the phrase will make it come true.  But it takes a strange sort of courage and strength to make yourself so happy.  She says, late in the book:

I couldn’t go on in this fashion- rise and shine, rise and shine- unerringly, day after day after day.  Waiting for that red, red robin to come bob, bob, bobbin’ along.  (Along.)  Because I hadn’t got superhuman strength.  Sometimes I prayed for just the ordinary kind; yet occasionally had to wonder whether God could even be listening.

And that’s what is so heartbreaking.  Rachel tries so very hard to be happy and warm and friendly, but does it work?  Readers can't be sure.  Can anyone blame her for turning inwards to a fantasy world of her own making, where everything is perfect?

Women Unbound Challenge
I decided that this book qualifies for the Women Unbound Challenge.  Because, regardless of the method she employed and what it did to her, Rachel Waring is a woman who, after an awkward and lonely existence, decides to do something about it and for a brief, perfect moment, succeeds completely.

I highly, highly recommend this book.  It takes place in the 1980s but to me, seemed to take place decades prior to then- I can’t quite pinpoint why.  The writing is wonderful and the characters are skillfully drawn.  And I love, love, love an unreliable narrator!

24 comments:

  1. Sounds like an interesting book, and all that love love love at the end of your review. Well makes me wanna check this book out

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  2. I find it so intriguing when male authors use a female protagonist and vice versa. I myself can never figure out how men think, so it's fascinating to me, especially when the reader feels it works so well, as you do here.

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  3. Interesting cover. I never would have thought this took place in the 1980s...

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  4. Blodeuedd- I hope you are able to find it and read it! I am not sure if you'd like it, but I think you'd find it interesting, at least.

    Rhapsody- I agree completely! I don't know how they do it. I should try to figure out if I think I like female characters written by men better than I like female characters written by women.

    Amanda- I really thought the book felt more like it took place in the 1920s, but I feel like that could be because the main character was really into the past and the golden age. The cover makes sense when you read the book, but not before that.

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  5. Great review-- my eye has definitely been caught! Cool cover too...

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  6. Well, I can see why you were so excited to tell us about this book yesterday! It sounds amazing and it's going on my wishlist asap. I've always been interested in stories that deal with sanity and madness and the line between the two.

    Also, I think the reason why male authors write female characters successfully and vice-versa is because we REALLY aren't all that different, and a lot of what people assume to be "natural" about gender is a social fiction. I'll shut up and go away now :P

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  7. She- Thank you! I hope you enjoy it, if you find it and read it soon. I know I put tons of books on my wish list that just sit there for months or even years- not sure if that's just me or if it's normal.

    Nymeth- Yes, I thought you would really like it, based on your reading preferences! I hope you are able to find it and read it soon. I feel like editions from the 80s might be more accessible in Europe than they are here. I am not sure about my thoughts on authors convincingly writing people of the opposite gender. Mostly because in the chick lit genre, most of the authors are female and I don't think they write very convincing or all-that-likable female leads. So even if men and women aren't that different, maybe women amongst ourselves are.

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  8. Hi Aarti,
    I came here with every intention of accepting your kind offer to do a Rosie's Riveters piece on Cousin Bette only after reading your meaty review of Stephen
    Benatar’s ‘Wish Her Safe at Home’ I thinking I would much rather do one for Zhuang from Guo’s 'A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers'. Zhuang too was something of a lost soul living in her head that won my heart. I would love to do a Rosie's Riveters piece and will do any of these two. My email address is simoneogilvie@yahoo.ca
    My every thanks to you for your your kind offer. All my very best.
    Sincerely,
    Simone

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  9. Awesome review. I'm super intrigued.

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  10. Boy this sounds interesting, and a good choice for the Women Unbound challenge. I'm adding to my list - thank you!

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  11. Very curious why people avoided someone who is always pleasant. I wonder how she acted that was so strange.

    Enjoyed your review.

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  12. Simone- I sent you an email :-)

    Elizabeth- YES, I think it is perfect for Unbound, for the reasons I stated above.

    Susan- I think she tried to be pleasant, but came off as a bit odd.

    Akilah- If you pick up the book some time, let me know what you think!

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  13. Oh my! You have made me so, so want to read this book. It sounds absolutely fascinating, and the main character sounds like someone who I could really get invested in. I am so curious about this book and wish it had already been released, because I want it now!! Great review, I have bought so many books based on your reviews and always get so excited to come over here and visit because I find the greatest stuff here!

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  14. So I had to scurry here to read even more about this book. Excellent review and an excellent choice for women unbound. I've added it to my list.

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  15. Wow, this book really does sound amazing! Great review!

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  16. Aarti,

    And I love, love, love an unreliable narrator!

    Hooray! Me too. Christopher Priest is the master, I'd aver. (Particulary The Affirmation, The Glamour, The Prestige, and The Separation.

    Mark_W

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  17. ooh this sounds so interesting! I think I'm going to like this. I do enjoy some of the NYRB books and I love their covers.

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  18. What a well-written review! You've made me want to check this one out. I know there are some days I'd like to rewrite my own story. LOL

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  19. Great review. This book sounds so interesting! I will have to put it on my TBR list!

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  20. Beautiful review! I just popped over here after reading your recent Sunday Salon post, and I'll say this: it has officially been added to my wishlist. :) I definitely take notice of anything labeled a "must read," and I really trust the judgment of our book blogging community. I'll be reading this one for sure!

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  21. Okay, you got me to read it, and I posted my review today. It really made me think; I don't believe I'll ever get Rachel out of my head for the rest of my life.

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  22. YAY, Jeanne! I'm so thrilled that now I can discuss the book with someone :-) I don't think I'll get Rachel out of my head, either. She's such an achingly real and heartbreaking character.

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  23. Great review, and I really enjoyed the book - I do like an unreliable narrator too! Will blog soon...

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  24. Just found your review - thank you! I agree with you about the unreliable narrator, and i too love this about it. The Good Soldier is one of my favourite novels and I don't think that Rachel has knocked John Dowell off the top of my favourite narrators list but she is certainly compelling. I thought the relaitonship between her Roger and Celia was so well done - we really are led to think that they're taking advantage of her, and then she is the one who leaves them high and dry. I have to say though, that if they *aren't* gold diggers (and it doesn't seem that they were), I am not sure how they became such firm friends so quickly. The couple seem entirely normal and Rachel seems as if she would be very difficult to befriend in real ilfe.

    Thanks for the Outward Room suggestion - funnily enough i bought a copy a few weeks ago (not the NYRB edition, an old one) but am yet to read it, hope to have time to pick it up soon!

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