Monday, October 31, 2011

Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin

Title: Rosemary's Baby
Author: Ira Levin
Publisher: Random House (1967)

As we head into our holiday break, Michael had the superb idea that we re-visit the horror genre for Halloween. This book was sitting in my Kindle just waiting for a read so I was happy to queue up this spooky title. Having an excuse to watch the movie again was also quite appealing. Speaking of the movie...

I think I first saw this movie when I was 12 and I had no idea it was based on a book. I remember being creeped out but I had no other memories of it (I'll leave comments re my new memories of it for Michael's blog). A couple weeks ago I was chatting with my neighbors about books (as we often do) and Ira Levin came up. Later that evening, I downloaded Rosemary's Baby on my Kindle. It wasn't until Michael suggested it for a joint post that I started it up. The Kindle edition included a very nice introduction that got me pretty excited about trying out my first Levin. Turns out, the book is very educational (see bullet points below (yeah, I geeked out:)).

**this review includes SPOILERS**

Rosemary and her douchebag partner husband are moving into their dream apartment. A close friend warns that the building has a seedy past but the happy couple aren't about to let the past or superstition ruin their domestic bliss. Even the nosy old couple down the hall isn't going to ruin the tedium fun of covering closet shelves with gingham contact paper. With hubby's career taking off and a baby on the way, the Woodhouses are ready to settle in for the time of their lives. It's at about this time that Rosemary's education begins.

1. Don't accept food from strangers

There are multiple instances of food from the neighbors being a terrible idea but if you eat a dessert with a weird "under taste," then get dizzy and have psycho dreams of the devil sexually assaulting you it's time to say no thanks.

2. Don't trust doctors who tell you not to read books

Levin does a wonderful job of interweaving the mundane with the ominous. One might eventually weary of Rosemary listing her domestic tasks but there's no doubt they underscore the small signs of mischief at play in the building. In addition to this, there is the constant feeling of Man Control over everything. In general, Rosemary tends to cede control to the men in her life but as the story progresses the oppression that results from her lack of independent thought made my skin crawl. How she can accept the judgements of a doctor who tells her not to read is beyond me. These aspects of the story, I think, were uniquely suited to the time when the book was published. They lend an extra layer of creepy that was, for me, even more affecting than the satanism.

3. Don't introduce your friends to your creepy neighbors

Rosemary has a father-figure/mentor who, like any rational human being, becomes suspicious of the creepy neighbors and the prenatal care Rosemary is getting. His suspicions are not lost on the neighbors and he conveniently falls into a coma shortly after meeting one of them. Unfortunately, Rosemary is not yet ready to accept all the signs of crazy around her.

4. Don't allow other people to make all your decisions

Rosemary's instincts are screaming at her that something is wrong and yet she continues to let the people around her brow beat her into doing what they want (admittedly, Satanists are probably pretty convincing, power of the Devil and all that).

5. Don't lose your independence

When things are going well Rosemary doesn't give much thought to how dependent she is on her husband. However, when the shit starts to hit the fan she doesn't have many options. I admired that she seemed to wake from her Do Whatever I'm Told stupor but she'd basically painted herself into a corner by the time she realized she needed to get out.

6. Don't marry self-involved, callous jerk-faces

Guy is an absolute piece of work. What a pig! Levin does a fantastic job with his character, though. The unraveling of Guy mirrors Rosemary's discovery of the Satan worshipers down the hall. There are hints early of Guy's creep factor (just as there are hints that all is not right with the neighbors) but they can be chalked up to contemporary social mores. As the story progresses it becomes more and more clear that Guy isn't exactly a catch. At first I had a really hard time accepting how quickly he sold out his family to the cult but it eventually becomes clear that all he brought to his marriage was a sense of humor and a giant ego. This naturally increases the sense of isolation Rosemary feels as she approaches the end of her pregnancy and heightens the feeling of impending doom for the reader. 

This certainly is not a perfect book but I was quickly absorbed by the pacing and plot. There are several layers of creepy that allow the reader to easily feel Rosemary's dread and I really enjoyed that (even if my teeth were often grinding because of Guy and the Man Control - I'm assuming that was intentional and it worked!). It's quite the page turner despite the fact that this is not even remotely action packed. That comes, as mentioned above, from Levin's admirable mingling of the everyday with the horrific.

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Coming up next:
Break for the holidays - see you in January!


  1. As I'd expected, a wonderful review of Ira Levin's most notable novel. He really did mingle "... the everyday with the horrific" with this one. When I did the audiobook recently, read by Mia Farrow herself in fact, how much the reader becomes involved with Rosemary (especially by the end) was surprising. Credit the author for pulling that one off. That, and accepting the pull of motherhood upon our heroine, especially with the choices she comes arounds to. I was touched by it.

    "I admired that she seemed to wake from her Do Whatever I'm Told stupor but she'd basically painted herself into a corner by the time she realized she needed to get out."

    Yeah, so true. I thought my blogging colleague, Colonel Mortimer, coined it best in his recent Halloween review of DEAD & BURIED:

    "... but leads to a great “the protagonist is fucked” endgame"

    It's been so long since I did an Ira Levin book and I'd forgotten how elegant the author wrote. He could give meaning to the story without overly flowery prose or catchy dialogue. He was a great storyteller and this novel did so much to unsettle and entertain. Thanks, Rachel.

  2. I am so not a horror fan, ergo haven't read this book or seen the movie or plan to, but even apart from that I've never been a big Mia Farrow fan.

    So - you're not blogging again till the new year? What will I do?
    Just kidding. Go forth and enjoy your IRL life. Yes, I realize there is a redundancy there but it's the sentiment that matters.

  3. Hey Michael, great quote from the other review! Thanks for sharing that. I think it takes a special story to keep a reader interested in that type of endgame.

    I noted the same thing about his writing style. I've always liked the bare bones approach since I'm the type of reader that likes to do a lot of work while I'm reading. I like to have holes to fill in. :)

    Hi Maya - If you ever do want to try a horror this would certainly be the one to go with. There is only one scene that gives a true horror vibe, the rest is psychological.

    I only meant a break from the joint posts. I'll keep posting (infrequently though it may be) throughout the rest of the year. But, don't worry, I am definitely going forth and enjoying my real life life.