Sunday, January 11, 2015

Book Review: "Rainey Royal" by Dylan Landis

When we first meet Rainey Royal, the protagonist of Dylan Landis' exquisite novel of interconnected vignettes, she is 14 years old, living in 1970s-era New York City. Her mother left to allegedly live on an ashram, leaving Rainey to live with her father, Howard, a jazz musician of some renown, who acts as a Pied Piper and mentor of sorts for young, aspiring musicians—particularly women.

These "acolytes," as Rainey refers to them, show up, take what they can from Howard (although he usually does more taking), and leave when either they get tired of the lifestyle or Howard tires of them. Rainey is forced to share her living space and possessions with these people, and understand she must share her father with so many.

Rainey is fierce and feisty, but at the same time, she's desperately in need of love and attention. She's getting more than she bargained for with Gordy, Howard's best friend and fellow musician, who lives with them, but while she knows his affections are wrong, they make her feel needed at the same time. She's also just becoming aware of her sexuality, and the effect it can have on others—her teachers, the male musicians that surround Howard, even strangers.

"She sends signals to everyone, all the time, even if the signals are submerged, like telexes in cables on the ocean floor. It's what she does."

Rainey has a love-hate relationship with her best friend, Tina, who craves Rainey's approval and love, but also wants to be a part of the circle that surrounds Howard. Even as she and Rainey grow into adulthood, she never quite discloses the extent of her relationship with Howard. But more than anything, it is Rainey to whom she and others are drawn, including Leah Levinson, a fellow student, whose life seems to eke along colorlessly until she is with Rainey again.

Rainey Royal follows Rainey, as well as Tina and Leah, from their teenage years through their mid-20s, through emotional, humorous, angry, even criminal escapades. Rainey is a tremendously talented artist in need of someone to nurture her talent, but she is also desperate to find someone to love her, someone willing to give, not just take from her, and all of her relationships cause her happiness and hurt at the same time.

I thought this was an absolutely terrific book. Rainey is a complex, beautifully drawn character, flawed yet sympathetic, one whose actions you might not always agree with, but you can see from where they originate. Landis is a fantastic writer, and there were so many sentences that I just marveled over. I worried when I started the book that the whole novel-in-vignettes concept would make the story feel incomplete, as if we were just getting glimpses of the characters and action instead of becoming fully immersed, but Landis did a good job of ensuring continuity, even as the novel progressed through the years.

I'd love to see another novel that follows up on Rainey, Tina, and Leah. Landis has a love for her characters and it truly showed, making Rainey Royal a book worth reading, for so many reasons.

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