Thursday, October 2, 2014

Review of Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis
Publisher: Soho Press
Publication Date: September 9, 2014
Length: 246 pages
Source: Library copy

A teenage bully, a talented artist, a loyal friend, an abandoned daughter, an abused child—Rainey Royal is all of these things. In her new novel Rainey Royal, Dylan Landis tells 14 stories about her title character and her passage to adulthood. But this hypnotizing and unnerving novel is more than the tale of one girl; through Rainey, Landis sheds light on the complex, precarious experience of girlhood.

The Story: In 1970s Greenwich Village, teenage Rainey Royal lives in a deteriorating brownstone with her father Howard, a jazz musician so revered that young acolytes arrive to learn from the master . . . as well as to sleep in the master’s home (often in the master’s bed), share his drugs, and eat his pizza. A musical commune is a strange place indeed to raise a child, and Howard’s approach to parenthood is one of, at best, benign neglect. Residing in the townhouse is also Howard’s good friend and fellow musician Gordy, with whom Howard “shares everything,” even, apparently, his wife, Rainey’s mother . . . that is, before she abruptly de-camped to an ashram in Colorado. Now Gordy comes unwanted to Rainey’s bedroom at night, to brush her hair and give her back rubs.

While Rainey fights off creepy Gordy’s advances, she finds solace in visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in pleas to St Catherine of Bologna, the patron saint of artists, and in her friendship with a tough girl named Tina. Together, Rainey and Tina torment weaker girls at school, cause mischief great and small, and experiment with their blossoming sexual power (“engaging with the male teachers” inappropriately, as the school psychologist delicately puts it; Rainey and Tina call it The Private Game).

Landis follows Rainey--fierce, reckless, wounded Rainey--through her teens and early twenties, as she acts out, tries on different personas, and . . . somehow . . . survives her strange childhood and begins to grow into the woman and artist she was meant to be.

My Thoughts: I galloped through Rainey Royal, mesmerized by the intensity and heart of this book and wanting to consume every word of Landis’s fluid and elegant prose. Landis’ portrayal of Rainey is deeply nuanced and absolutely spot on; she has created a character that practically leaps off the page. Her Rainey is, quite convincingly, both prey and predator. Landis perfectly captures the crazy combination of deep vulnerability and sharp cruelty that teen girls can have. Rainey and Tina are nauseatingly, frighteningly powerful as they run emotional roughshod over classmates, and even teachers, at school, and delve into even more terrible behavior outside of school. They are desperately in need of adult guidance; without it, they must, in a sense, create themselves.

For me, Rainey Royal was a wonderful and entertaining read, although I felt the novel lost some of its power when Landis shifted the focus away from Rainey herself. Landis tells several of the final stories from the perspective of Rainey’s friends Tina and Leah, and while I appreciated those voices (especially Tina’s), I longed for more of Rainey’s singularly compelling voice as the novel drew to a close.

I hope Landis will write another novel book with these characters; I would love to know what happens to them as they pass out of new adulthood and into their thirties and beyond. Landis’s story collection Normal People Don't Live Like This, published in 2009, focused on Leah and her mom, and of course Rainey is the star of Rainey Royal; perhaps in Landis’s next book, it will be time for the young Dr. Tina Dial to take center stage.


  1. I'm not sure about this one :(
    Rather intense and disturbing, but I'm glad you enjoyed it. I do like the Greenwich Village setting back in the '70s, that part appeals to me. I don't like bullying or preying on young girls in my stories, though. Thanks for sharing it.

    1. Oh yeah, I completely understand the reluctance to read about these topics--in general, I share that! For me though, this book was a really interesting reminder of how complicated and hazardous a girl's passage through the teen years can be. As a parent, maybe it can helpful to have a good reminder of that now and then. Teenagehood--I wouldn't want to live through those years again for anything. But ultimately, I thought, this novel ends in an affirming way.
      Thanks for stopping by!