Thursday, April 9, 2020

Book 228: Rosemary's Baby


"Now, looking back over the past weeks and months, she felt a disturbing presence of overlooked signals just beyond memory, signals of a shortcoming in his love for her, of a disparity between what he said and what he felt. He was an actor; could anyone know when an actor was true and not acting?"

Dates read: April 24-27, 2018

Rating: 5/10

I remember, when I first learned about how babies are made (not the sex part, the pregnancy part), my overwhelming impression was that it sounded like being the host for a parasite. Before it can survive outside of you, it's just hooked up to your insides, taking your nutrients and calories. And while modern-day ultrasound technology is giving us ever-clearer ideas of what exactly is going on in there, for the most part it's hidden from view. You feel kicks and punches and the call is coming from inside the house! Yes, yes, it's the miracle of life and all that, but there's something just kind of fundamentally weird about it.

I'm not the only one who thinks so, the phrase "body horror of pregnancy" brings up plenty of Google results. If you were to ever ask anyone if they can think of a piece of pop culture about it, the answer you'd probably hear is Rosemary's Baby. Most people would mean the Polanski film, but that cinema classic (one of the few horror movies even I enjoy!) was based on Ira Levin's original novel. It's almost a novella...it's quite short. It tells the story of young newlywed Rosemary Woodhouse, who begins the story by moving into an exclusive Manhattan apartment building with her up-and-coming actor husband, Guy. A friend from her time in the workforce tries to warn her about the bad reputation the place has, but the couple is excited and moves in anyways.

Rosemary, estranged from her own Midwestern family, is eager to have a child, but Guy is hesitant until he starts spending time around the Castevets, their elderly next-door neighbors, and he gets a promising role when the originally-cast actor is struck blind. The night they conceive, Rosemary's drink is spiked and while she remembers an oddly demonic evening, Guy claims nothing odd happened. She's steered away from her first choice of doctor to one the Castevets prefer, who counsels her to not talk about how her pregnancy is going with her friends. After months of agonizing pain (and daily nutritional drinks provided by the Castevets), Rosemary complains to a friend, who starts looking into what could be wrong. He's struck down suddenly, and his last message to Rosemary is a warning about her new friends. Heavily pregnant and with no one to turn to, Rosemary is suddenly terrified about what exactly she's going to be giving birth to.

What came through the most strongly to me, from today's perspective, is a warning about how abusers work. Rosemary is cut off from her family, from the doctor she wants to go to, from her friends and a community of women who would be able to tell her that her experiences aren't normal. Her husband and neighbors do all of it cheerfully, in the guise of caring about her, but they're really isolating her so they can better control her. It's incremental enough that she barely even notices the noose tightening around her until it's too late. That, as much as the reality that you have no idea what your baby is going to be like until it comes out, is the horror.

Honestly, this is a situation where the movie is better. The book isn't bad, but it's unspectacular. None of the characters is all that compelling, the dialogue doesn't spark, the prose is unremarkable. The performances (particularly Mia Farrow) and atmosphere Polanski was able to render on film flesh out the bones of the interesting idea Levin's work presents and explores. The book on its own isn't unworth your time, particularly because it's so short, but its not anything special.

One year ago, I was reading: The Last Romantics (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Silent Spring

Three years ago, I was reading: Big Little Lies

Four years ago, I was reading: And After Many Days

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