Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Review: Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin

Rosemary's Baby
by: Ira Levin

published: 1967

Synopsis: She is a housewife - young, healthy, blissfully happy. He is an actor- charismatic and ambitious. The spacious sun-filled apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side is their dream home - a dream that turns into an unspeakable nightmare...

Rosemary's Baby is a complex horror book to try and review. There is no doubt that this book is anything but fantastic and the fact that it spawned the classic film starring Mia Farrow earns it a few more brownie points as well, but it isn't your typical horror story, or it is, but it isn't told like your average horror tale. So now that I've well and truly confused you and probably turned you off ever reading it, I'm going to try and explain why this book is so complicated to review and why I love it so much.

I am an avid horror fan, but my introduction (after the first few Stephen King films) were your typical blood and gore teen slasher flicks. So I've always been used to gore and blood and chainsaws and crazy guys wearing masks, but it was only a couple of years ago that I began watching and reading horror for the added attraction of the psychology and metaphor that abounds in these films and novels. The only problem is, most people are like I was, and expect to be scared by horror, and they think if it is missing the blood and psychopath chasing the victim scene and they don't have to hide behind their hands then it is a failure. It's for this reason that of the dozen or so friends I've suggested Rosemary's Baby to, only about three have actually enjoyed watching the film. The book is much the same, in fact, if you've seen the film, there was only one scene cut out and the final scene was longer in the book. Other than that, it's almost word for word (don't you freaking love when films adapt books like that!).

Rosemary is a young newly-wed who is desperate to start a family with her actor husband, Guy. He seems a little reticent (even though he's 9 years older) and doesn't want to even think about it before he's had his "big break". The book begins when the two of them find out an apartment is available at the Bramford, a HUGE Victorian-esque apartment complex in New York that has a rather shady past. It was home to the Trench sisters who used to eat children, A satanist/witch named Marcato also called it home, and some other names are thrown in without any specification of what horrible nastiness they committed, perhaps they were hit-men, mafia bosses, cannibals, witches, or god knows what else?! Because of an unhappy situation involving the suicide of a young woman Rosemary had only met the previous day, Rosemary and Guy finally meet their loud and rather obnoxious older neighbours, Minnie and Roman. After a first awkward dinner party with Minnie and Roman, Rosemary is ready to sever ties with them, but when Guy (who had issues with his parents growing up) seems to take a real liking to them, she lets it go and goes back to keeping house.

Which is what much of the book is about, keeping house. Rosemary is your typical 1960s housewife, she takes pride in keeping a beautiful house for her husband and entertaining friends in their well-kept home. So as minor narration describes Guy spending hours next door with the oldies and doing rather badly in his auditions, and some weird dinner party singing/chanting coming from next door, the main thrust follows Rosemary as she sews together pillows for their window seat, or daydreams about the yellow wallpaper she'll use when they covert the sitting room into a nursery. Now, don't get me wrong, it isn't written in a "she is a woman, this is her place" kind of way, it's simply following Rosemary in her daily life. She isn't a super hero, she isn't feuding with her husband, she isn't mega rich or super poor. She's a typical woman, living a typical life and enjoying it.

That said, she isn't a simple character, she's a very interesting woman who, as the book and the action progresses, is constantly torn between behaving in the approved female position (i.e. the man is right, do what he says) and speaking up for how she feels or when she doubts what a man is telling her. For example, after settling into their apartment, Guy's luck is looking up and the play he was desperate to play a part in, which had been cast without him, offers him the lead role. With his career looking up, they decide it's time to start their family, and Rosemary prepares a beautiful dinner to lead into their night of baby-making. After a few too many drinks (*ahem* drugged chocolate mousse) Rosemary passes out in her bed and "dreams" some really crazy crap which eventuates with the devil himself raping her. When she makes up the next morning with scratches covering her, Guy laughs it off by saying he's cut down his nails already and "sorry, but I was super excited about having a baby". Obviously, when I read that (having already seen it in the film) I was like WTF! If my husband said "oops, sorry I raped you but it's OK because BABY!" I'd cut his dick off. But Rosemary is torn between her obvious disgust, "but we could have done it this morning or tonight, last night wasn't the only night," and her conditioned response that the husband is right and good and all OK. After the whole thing swirls around her head, she takes off to a friend's house in the wood to re-evaluate their relationship without his interference. Now she may not come down on the side I would have, but the constant tug-a-war that occurred in her mind was interesting to read, especially in regards to the time the novel took place in.

So once Rosemary finds out she is actually pregnant, things begin to ramp up, but again they're contained to the life of a pregnant woman, rather than your typical horror. After forgiving Guy for his "rape" she throws herself into being pregnant, but she's crippled by pains and rather than being happy, she's terrified of losing her child. Without wanting to give anything away, she grows increasingly paranoid (thanks, in part, to a good friend) and begins to believe everyone is in a plot to kill her child. Her paranoia is linked to a supernatural fear, but it isn't until the conclusion that she's proved right/wrong in her suspicions. So this is where the "is this horror?" aspect comes in, because while there are supernatural fears, it could simply be the result of "pregnancy crazies" so it's all a little up in the air. But really, at the heart of it, whether or not her paranoia is in fact correct isn't important, it's the journey she takes, and her unconditional love, loyalty and protection of her child that really blew my mind.

Regardless of what you consider to be horror, this is a wonderful read and if you're not a horror fan, definitely feel comfortable picking up this book, because the "horror," when it does hit, is more akin to a thriller novel and the central tale of life as a woman/wife mother-to-be in the 1960s is too good to pass up. I should probably also mention, that even though it focuses greatly on the more mundane aspects of life, it is never slow or dull, so, convoluted review aside, read this book!


  1. I read this several years ago and remember loving it! Some of the older horror lit is so much better than the contemporary horror. Classic horror didn't have to rely so much on gory detail...their writing stood on its own. Good stuff.

  2. Great review - I loved this book too. You might want to give the sequel a miss though, it's so bad it's almost good!

  3. I completely agree Peppermint, it's why I typically read older horror or horror by authors I know I can rely on to provide an actual story rather that just blood and gore.

    @Sophia, I've heard it's really bad (the first chapter was included in the back of my edition of Rosemary's Baby too) but it sounds so bad that I kinda feel like I should read it, if only for the lols. Definitely going to be a library book though!

  4. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this book! I read it for my Gothic Engish Lit class a couple of years ago and fell in love with it! I still find it creepy!

  5. I've always meant to read this book. Maybe this year...

  6. Definitely do Kathy. Well worth a read!



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