Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

The following is a guest review by Eve Pearce

Is it better to read the book before seeing the film? Or see the film before reading the book? Some traditionalists would balk at the latter option of this quandary but it is a fact universally acknowledged that the movie industry and bestselling book charts are intertwined. Some great works of literature make poor films and some dreadful books make exceptional movies. When it comes to Silver Linings Playbook, the debut novel of former English teacher Matthew Quick, it makes little difference whether the book or film enter your life first. The two complement each other without either detracting from each other’s qualities in any way. But if it comes down how big a draw Bradley Cooper is, don’t worry…you can always get the tie-in publication with his face on the cover – best of both worlds?

An unreliable yet loveable narrator

Quick’s narrator and protagonist is Pat Peoples. At the novel’s opening he has been released from a mental health institution into the care of his mother. Pat has lost all sense of time and much of his ability to differentiate reality from the protective smokescreen of a world he has created for himself during his treatment. In his head, Pat believes he has been away from the life he once knew for just a few months – the reality? It has been four years since he was committed following the breakdown of his relationship with ex-wife Nikki. As he struggles to come to terms with the changes in his friends and family since his breakdown, we as readers struggle to come to terms with the intensely personal voice Quick has instilled in Pat’s character. It is not constructed confusingly necessarily, but you soon realise Pat’s potential to be something of an unreliable narrator.

Pat’s intention to reunite with his ex-wife is something of an addiction and it is this intense motivation that drives much of the action. Being within the mind of a man who has suffered such an emotional breakdown can be difficult. Indeed, much of the novel’s underlying motif deals with the stigma of mental health issues and Pat’s withdrawal from the comfort of his imagined world of ‘silver linings.’ In part, Pat follows the path of many of those dealing with the perils of detox and withdrawal: he distracts himself from one addiction with another becoming obsessed with intense exercise in his single-minded pursuit of retaining his old life. Anyone suffering from addiction of any kind places immense pressure on those around them, in Pat’s case his parents. His treatment has not left him fully rehabilitated initially leaving his parents at something of a loss. His mother copes through intense feeding and almost enabling Pat’s worst traits whereas his father refuses to talk to him at first unless football can be used as a conduit. All of which suggests he is not a hero we should be rooting for, but you might be surprised.

A unique outlook

The novel echoes another powerful debut, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in its frank and honest approach to the topic of mental health. The reaction of Pat’s father to his son’s return (namely anger, distrust and ignoring the fact) is representative of how many in society view those with mental health issues. It is a clever ploy of the writer to embody these emotions in the character of Pat Sr. although perhaps the preachy overtones and its heavy-handedness is indicative of the first time author. However, it allows the reader to question their own opinions and reactions. You can be appalled by Pat Sr.’s behaviour initially, yet the novel asks whether you would be any different? As I say, bordering on the self-righteous but entirely well meaning.

Pat spends his days working out, his nights sweating in sleeping bags and any spare time reading classic literature. His intention is to become a better man both physically and intellectually in order to win back his ex-wife’s affection. This is Quick’s trick when it comes to Pat’s empathetic abilities as a main character. There is something so ridiculous, so childlike and resultantly so charming about his ambition that it is hard to knock him down. He considers his life in a unique way, seeing everything as categorised and compartmentalised. His breakdown has forged emotions as almost physical entities for him, making much of his unusual description potent to the reader. For example, his past is what he refers to as the ‘bad place’ a tangible location for Pat that he endeavours to avoid at all costs. Contrary to the ‘bad place’ is Pat’s continued and optimistic belief in ‘silver linings’ or the happy ending he foresees. The consistency in the narrative style is a big plus for the piece.

What do you expect?

The movie adaptation has been marketed as something of a romantic comedy, focusing on Pat’s strange friendship with fellow oddball Tiffany. As damaged as he is, it doesn’t take a genius to predict the plot points for their relationship, yet there is something more than average about Tiffany. For a start, I found her intensely dislikeable initially. Whether this was intentional or the fault of the writer I’m still unclear. Even the discovery of her tragic widowhood fails to strike a chord and her cold chasing of Pat appears anything but the ingredients of romantic comedy. Yet she grows on you, just as she grows on Pat. She is complex and to be honest on occasion she is a bit of a bitch, but you learn she is deeply human in her flaws and deeply passionate in her pursuit of Pat.

As I’ve alluded to before, the strength in the novel’s style is the narrative voice. Of course, first person narrative is not new to the novel and if anything it is the easiest choice for a writer to make. However, it is not always done with quite as much style and success. Its consistency shows thorough understanding and respects the careful balance between character and story that is so intrinsic to a novel’s success.

Much of this review revolves around character and themes, with only a little time dedicated to style. A conscious decision, as Silver Linings Playbook is all about Pat and his journey with style and structure integrated with him in a way that renders it barely noticeable. Whether Pat is a hero in the traditional sense seems unimportant. Yet his determined and obstinate belief in ‘silver linings’ makes him optimism personified and, as a reader, becoming embroiled in his worlds, both real and imaginary, is something of a pleasure.

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