Leeds Book Club will be participating in the Arts and Minds Network‘s new project on raising awareness of mental health issues.
This review is provided to us by regular book clubber @AlisonNeale. She is my book Guru and always passionate, intelligent and – often most important – articulate when it comes to books.
I almost never read reviews until afterwards, so when Leeds Book Club sent me the list of books for the new Mental Health Reading Challenge, the subject matter of The Silver Linings Playbook was a mystery to me. The film trailer had been playing in recent months and I had assumed it was a romcom, so avoided it like the plague. However, Twitter was abuzz with people recommending the book, so as I always enjoy being challenged to do something I fully intended on achieving anyway, I offered to read and review it.
My immediate reaction—after just a few pages—was relief that I had chosen not to see the film beforehand, because no matter how good the script and acting, no movie could portray the subtleties of this text, or the protagonist’s little turns of phrase. At first I found Pat’s naivety, his gullibility, a bit grating. He is obviously disorientated in time and under the influence of medication, but would he really believe his mother’s story about a burglar taking all the photographs? After all, at other times he is quite coldly calculating of the words and behaviour of those around him. However, I came to understand that his almost unrelenting faith in others and in God was the result of his realisation that he is no longer in control of himself. This trust is finally justified.
Life is a series of short stories, leading one to the next:
In the early pages Pat points out that his therapist in ‘the bad place’ ‘does not believe in silver linings, making it his business to preach apathy and negativity and pessimism unceasingly’. Finding the silver lining is a trick taught to Pat by his mother Jeanie, as we find out later:
I noticed, too, that hugs are always described in detail—again, in contrast to Patrick’s inability to engage emotionally. Pat’s mother tells him:
I liked that the book used realistic, everyday terms to describe and even judge the characters: ‘odd’ and ‘nymphomaniac’ to describe Tiffany; ‘crazy’ vs. ‘normal’ to describe Pat. These throwaway words and phrases that many of us use unthinkingly in common speech could so easily offend, as Pat points out on numerous occasions. This certainly made me think, and I’ve edited my speech a couple of times in recent days in light of this.
some are full of joy, some are sad,
No one is unrealistically happy—or even sad—in the book. The closest to an extreme is Nikki happily snowballing with her new family, and even there, doubts are cast: why would her new husband want to live in Pat and Nikki’s house, where everything fell apart? Instead the scene felt very cinematic: from Pat’s viewpoint, an idealistic vista for his life-as-a-movie.
In terms of realism, I cannot say how close the novel is to the real state of mind of someone with Pat’s mental health issues. I’m fortunate enough to have avoided anything more than a slight bout of depression in my mid-twenties and the recent turmoil of a horrible break-up.
With only those tiny insights into Pat’s and Tiffany’s respective mindsets, though, even I can recognise some of the thoughts, feelings and actions presented in the novel. The Kenny G problem was particularly vivid for me, as at least half my music collection has been a no-go area for the last nine months: music is such an important soundtrack to our lives. I also empathised with Pat’s humming to block out ‘bad’ thoughts and his concentration on, even obsession with, one thing to distract himself:
but there are always silver linings if you look for them.
My only slight disappointment was that this is a very American book and I am convinced that I am missing something in the sports element of the novel. Pat’s alter ego is Hank Baskett, who is described as an ‘undrafted rookie sensation’ at the start of the book, but ‘only a marginal player’ at the end, yet actually performs better and better as the season goes on.
This possibly echoes Pat being coddled and lied to early on, but as he gets better, his friends and family take a firmer stance, until his mother leaves him to take his own pills and tells him finally, ‘Nikki is never coming’. Perhaps I’m just reading too much into this, although the use of ‘playbook’ in the title might suggest not.
“Maybe my movie isn’t over,” I say, because sometimes moviemakers trick the audience with a false bad ending, and just when you think the movie is going to end badly, something dramatic happens, which leads to the happy ending[…]
“Your life is not a movie, Pat. Life is not a movie. You’re an Eagles fan. After watching so many NFL seasons without a Super Bowl, you should know that real life often ends poorly.”
The book isn’t about happy endings. The clue is in the title, of course. It is about finding the positive amongst the inevitable negative; about holding on and getting through and finding the people who will support you and love you despite everything when things are at their worst. Inevitably, we all read novels in the light of our own experiences, but I felt that this book was outstanding because it held a message for everyone, regardless of who they are, what they have been through and where they are in life. There is no ending, happy or otherwise. Life is a series of short stories, leading one to the next: some are full of joy, some are sad, but there are always silver linings if you look for them.
*****CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS*****
Some of my feelings about Silver Linings depend very much on how autobiographical it is. If the writing style is based on the author’s personal experience of having been in a psychiatric institution and the way people reacted when he was discharged, then it’s not my place to critique it. However, if it’s simply an interpretation of how someone in that situation might think, speak, and act, then I found it to be a bit infantalizing and also tedious.
I also bristled the “suspense” aspects of the story. Throughout the book, the audience does not know what dark secrets lie in the protagonists’ pasts, and all is revealed toward the climax. I saw no literary value in constructing it this way; instead this approach made a spectacle of the characters leaving the reader turning the page just to find the answer to: “Ooh, what’s the horrible thing that they’ve done?!” This narrative goes further to stigmatize mental illness rather than the reverse. And when it all is revealed, I was disappointed that it fell along such cliched gender roles: Pat as the brute and Tiffany as the whore.
Finally, the treatment of the characters of color, particularly Pat’s “black friend Danny,” rubbed me the wrong way. If you’re a white author and you’re going to include *one* black character in your book, don’t make that person a racial stereotype and talk about all the “black things” he’s fond of saying. It’s lazy writing at best, and casual racism at worst.
I suppose it is nice to see a mainstream novel (and now film) have a protagonist with a history of mental health treatment who’s just trying to negotiate day-to-day life, but I would have liked to see it done a bit more creatively.