Book Review: The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick

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I saw the movie of this book several years ago so it’s one of those rare experiences for me in that I’m reading the book afterwards. Normally, I find that a challenge because I’m constantly anticipating what’s about to happen. That didn’t happen with this book because the movie is very different… and so much better.

The Silver Linings Playbook is narrated by Pat, who is living in “the bad place”, as he calls it. His mother is there to take him home after… is it months or years? Pat can’t tell. He can’t remember why he was living in the institution either. Pat only has one goal: to be reunited with his beloved wife, Nikki, by focusing on being kind instead of being right, reading great American literature and by keeping up his gruelling exercise regime. He feels he was unkind to her, didn’t involve himself enough in her interests and let himself go during their marriage and if he can only rectify these things, then Nikki will welcome him back with open arms and everything will be alright again. Because he believes in silver linings.

When he gets to his parents’ home, all of his and Nikki’s wedding pictures have disappeared. They were stolen, his mother tells him. And a little later while watching a football game, Pat realises his favourite team now plays at a new and unfamiliar stadium. The old one was demolished two years ago, his brother tells him. How long was he in the bad place? Pat asks. Four years. It’s been four years since he’s seen his wife and he’s four years old than he thought.

He is invited to dinner at his former best friend’s home and there meets his former best friend’s wife’s sister, Tiffany. After her offer of casual sex and a bit of uncomfortable stalking, Tiffany gives Pat the option of a trade. She will act as an intermediary between him and Nikki (because they both have taken out legal orders preventing contact) if he will be her dance partner in a competition she is desperate to win. He agrees. In between he beats up his father, an opposition football fan and himself – himself a lot more than anyone else – and tries to avoid the music as well as any mention of a “smooth jazz performer whose initials are K.G.” (Kenny G).

Right from the beginning of the novel, Pat comes across as very single-minded. Even though he is thirty-four, it was like reading an eight-year-old’s account. He is simplistic, has no appreciation of nuance and no understanding of the real world. I couldn’t decide if it was childish or child-like. And even though towards the end of the book, we are told why he is like this, it’s also revealed that a lot of his current behaviour isn’t all that different to the way he was before.

There isn’t a single likeable male character in the whole book. Pat is violent and won’t take no for an answer. His father is sulky and smashes the television when his football team loses. (Wonder where Pat gets it from?) His brother is tries to act like nothing is wrong. His best friend makes an effort but is under the thumb of his wife. His therapist thinks football is an appropriate substitute for real therapy. And the female characters aren’t much better. Pat’s mother does everything for her “boys”. Tiffany is rude and unpleasant. Her sister treats both her and Pat like children who can’t be left alone or trusted. And Nikki, who only appears briefly at the end of the book, is given a free pass for behaviour that cannot be excused.

The secrets that everyone is keeping are kept only so the book can claim to be mysterious and alluring. It’s a writer’s trick that I hate, used instead of actual mystery. In fact, the movie gives away almost all of the secrets straight away, realising that they aren’t the key to keeping viewers (or readers) hooked on the story.

This was Matthew Quick’s first novel and while it’s a reasonable effort, it displays many of the issues common to first novels. But I think he writes well – I’d have to read another of his books not narrated by a thirty-four-year-old man who sounds like he’s eight to be absolutely sure. And I’m willing to read more of his work, which is always a mark in the plus column. I just hope he has a better handle on mysteries of plot and what makes an interesting character in his subsequent work.

3 stars

*First published on Goodreads 4 December 2016

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