Book Reviews · 11/03/2014

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis


Soho Press, 2014

At just under 250 pages, Rainey Royal is an intense and at times disturbing story about a girl growing up in New York during the 1970s and ’80s. Her father, a famous jazz musician, allows his groupies the run of their brownstone, leaving Rainey constantly fighting for privacy and some degree of normalcy. Casual sex and permeable boundaries are the hallmarks of her home life. When the novel opens, her mother has been gone already a few years, having taken off to pursue her own vague dreams. Rainey, then, is left with a father who toys with her psychologically and emotionally and leaves her vulnerable to the advances of some of his more sketchy groupies.

The disorder in her home pushes Rainey to try to control her life at school. She’s the girl who makes other girls eat cigarettes and lick unknown substances; she, along with her best friend Tina, causes male teachers to squirm by making suggestive gestures; she uses her body and brittle fake-confidence to make shyer girls cower in corners. And yet, she ultimately must go home each day to Howard Royal and his free-wheeling musician friends, acolytes, and lovers.

Landis follows Rainey through her teenage years into adulthood, occasionally branching off into the lives of Rainey’s friends, Tina and Leah, but mostly focusing on Rainey’s developing artistic talent and emerging sense of self. A talented seamstress and collagist, Rainey tries to earn a living creating tapestries for clients who wish to remember loved ones in a unique way. She takes old photographs, jewelry, bits of clothing, letters, buttons, etc., and sews them together into a memorial tapestry. Work like this, though, doesn’t come her way often, and doesn’t pay enough.

As the novel progresses, we realize that Rainey’s brief but frequent references to her mother, together with her developing skill as a creator of memorial tapestries, is indicative of a much deeper emotional scar than Rainey lets on. More and more, Rainey thinks about her mother’s perfume, her brief and age-inappropriate explanations about relationships, and the ring she gave to Rainey before she left.

It is precisely at these moments of remembrance that we realize the skill with which Landis balances how Rainey sees herself and how we as readers see her. Most of the story is told from Rainey’s perspective—one that is jaded, cynical, and uncertain—but the accumulation of details gleaned from her thoughts belies this brittle exterior and interior that Rainey has constructed. The narrative voice is tightly controlled, and Rainey’s thoughts about her mother are presented in the same manner as her thoughts about classmates or her art. And yet, we know that her mother’s abandonment wounded her more deeply than she will ever admit to herself.

Thus by the time we reach the chapter entitled, “Trash,” we’re nearly ready for the onslaught of Rainey’s memories about her mother. The entire chapter is a series of statements beginning with the words “Her mother said,” the hypnotic rhythm making it seem more like a poem than prose. We start to understand the depths of Rainey’s pain, resentment, and anger at being left as a teenage girl in a house constantly in flux. Rainey has no security or stability, and this drives her to be cruel to classmates and then uncertain and directionless as a young woman.

Only when boxes of her mother’s things are ruined during a flood does Rainey realize just how much she had depended on those physical objects to maintain a connection, no matter how tenuous, to the mother who left her. Rainey finds a treasure trove of objects at her aunt’s house, and plans a tapestry in memory of her mother, despite the fact that she’s still alive and living in Colorado. That her aunt’s a hoarder and refuses to let Rainey take anything only strengthens her determination to construct something tangible that she can hold on to.

Ultimately, Rainey Royal is a story about loss and recovery by any means necessary. Rainey, despite her tumultuous home life, disruptive behavior, and forays into petty crime, manages to develop her artistic gifts and confidence. Throughout it all, Rainey relies on her friendships with Tina and Leah for added strength and resolve, and for the female love that she craves. It is a brave book, a provocative book, a book that invites re-reading and discussions as intense as the world it portrays.

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Dylan Landis is the author of the debut novel Rainey Royal, forthcoming from Soho Press, and Normal People Don’t Live Like This, a linked story collection. Her fiction has appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories 2014 and in Bomb, Tin House and Best American Nonrequired Reading, and she has won a fellowship in fiction from the National Endowment for the Arts. Landis has covered medicine for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and interior design for the Chicago Tribune, and has written six books on decorating. She lives in New York City.

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Rachel S. Cordasco received her Ph.D in literary studies and has worked as an editorial assistant at the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. She currently writes for Bookriot.com and maintains her own bookish blog at Bookishlywitty.blogspot.com. You can follow her on twitter @Rcordas and at facebook.com/bookishlywitty.