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Although most people will have heard of 'Rosemary's Baby' and many will have seen the unsettling 1968 film by Roman Polanski I'd guess that few will have read Ira Levin's original novel. Levin also wrote 'A Kiss Before Dying', 'Sliver', 'The Boys from Brazil' and 'The Stepford Wives', all of which would become successful movies, but it is probably 'Rosemary's Baby' for which he is best remembered.
The novel begins with Rosemary Woodhouse and her struggling actor husband Guy moving into a prestigious apartment block in New York City. They can't really afford it but they're hoping that Guy will land a big role soon and hoping even harder that Rosemary will fall pregnant. The accommodation and the area would be perfect for children. The neighbours are fine too; mostly elderly people. They soon become firm friends and, when Guy's work does indeed take off and Rosemary does indeed find that she's going to have a baby, then everything seems perfect for them.
In these initial stages the book portrays an idyllic version of life in 1960's New York. It's 'Friends' for the Baby Boomer generation. Cocktails, house parties, actors and artists. It could also be seen as slow. The book definitely doesn't start with a bang. It revels in the details of Rosemary's everyday life as it slowly turns the screw on the terror that begins to take over her life.
Readers who remember the film version may be surprised at this as Mia Farrow's brilliant portrayal of the stifling claustrophobia of her life pretty much from the beginning of the film isn't here. She and everyone around her appear perfectly 'normal' (given their supposed lifestyles) until well into the book. Indeed it's a perfect study of everyday life among the wannabe glitterati until late into Rosemary's pregnancy when she begins to suspect that something is very wrong indeed. That's when her panic sets in. That's when she becomes sickly and in need of near-constant doctoring. And that's when she begins to worry that she's becoming paranoid and maybe a little insane.
Is she paranoid? Is she crazy? Is it just her raging hormones playing tricks on her? Or could those that she's come to know and love actually be more than they seem? She doesn't know, and neither does the reader until very close to the end. It's that psychological confusion that adds to the book's unsettling effect.
Any parent - especially mothers - will be able to identify with Rosemary's terror that something is wrong with her baby. That someone wants to abduct her baby. Or worse. Even talking about it is a taboo that is rarely broken and certainly wasn't in the late sixties when this novel was written.
There's no graphic violence here, no huge jumpy shocks, nothing to make you throw the book across the room in disgust; just a collection of unsettling ideas that build into a whole idea that couldn't possibly be true. But the moment that we put ourselves into Rosemary's position and wonder "What if..?" it becomes one of the scariest horrors ever put to print.
I borrowed the film based on this book not long ago, but with one thing and another, ended up not having enough time to see it. I hadn't realised it was a book, but when I came across it in my library, I picked it up straight away. Although I haven't read any of Ira Levin's books in the past, I did know the name; not surprising really as he is also the author of The Boys from Brazil and The Stepford Wives. Although it is not of the genre that I would usually read, the book certainly lived up to my expectations.
Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse are about to move into a newly rented flat, when the offer of a flat in the Victorian Bramford building, where flats are much in demand. Delighted, they get out of their original contract and grab the chance to move to the Bramford. Rosemary's friend, Hutch, warns them against the move, claiming that there have been a number of strange happenings and suicides in the building; too many to have been by chance.
Laughing him off, the Woodhouses move into their new home and happily settle down. Rosemary's only gripe is that she hates going down into the basement to do the washing, a problem that seems to be solved when she makes a friend and the two make plans to do their washing together. Then her new-found friend apparently commits suicide and Rosemary meets the Castavet's, the people with whom she lived. From then on, nothing quite seems to go right in Rosemary's life, despite the fact that she is finally pregnant. I'm not giving anything else away!
I did manage to see the first 15 minutes of the film before I had to take the DVD back and it was very similar to the opening of the book. However, somehow I found the book a lot more gripping. I had no idea what the book was about, but I immediately felt myself intrigued and from then on, only having to go to work got in the way of my reading. I managed to finish it in about a day and a half.
The story is very well handled. There are hints as to what will happen further on in the book, which were obvious once I had finished it, but weren't always at the time of reading. The story was leaked a little at a time, so that the reader picks pieces up gradually, although it does have to be said that Rosemary, the main character, doesn't pick it up anyway near as fast.
It was a good job that the story was so good, because I didn't really feel very much for any of the characters. Rosemary is initially too naïve and trusting for her own good; if I ever met her in person, I'd be tempted to give her a good smack. However, it is necessary to remember that the book was written in the 1960s when women were more sheltered; Rosemary has not got out much since her marriage. She wasn't a dislikeable character; I just struggled to have all that much sympathy for her although she goes through a horrifying experience. There is unfortunately something that I can only describe as smugly American (read over-confident) about both her and Guy (sorry - I don't mean to offend anyone American, but in my experience - and I've met many over the years - they do tend to be far more confident that the Brits!) and that did put me off a little.
Guy features much less in the book, but to me at least, it is clear that he is a no good narcissistic plonker right from the start. It's just a shame that Rosemary couldn't see it! I felt very little sympathy for him.
Much better character-wise were the Castavets, the mysterious neighbours. Initially, they keep well clear of the Woodhouses, but after their friend's suicide, the two couples begin to spend much more time together. The reader sees them more through Rosemary's eyes than anything else; she alternates between thinking that they are very odd to feeling very sorry for them. There is a great aura of mystery built up about them; the reader knows that there is something not quite right there, but it is hard to say what. I thought these two were characterised very well.
I think that anyone who is very into Stephen King, Dean Koontz or any other 'mystery thriller' authors may find this book a bit tame compared to what is written these days. As someone who likes the occasional Dean Koontz, I found it to be an enthralling book. There was enough mystery in it to keep me wanting to read, particularly because I knew that somewhere along the lines a baby would become involved. Moreover, it wasn't anything like the length of a typical Koontz book, which can sometimes be way too long. Recommended for fans of the supernatural and possibly crime fiction too.
The book is available from play.com for £5.49. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, it has 288 pages. ISBN: 0747557772
Rosemary Woodhouse and her struggling actor husband Guy move into the Bramford, an old New York City apartment building with an ominous reputation and only elderly residents. Neighbours Roman and Minnie Castavet soon come nosing around to welcome the Woodhouses to the building; despite Rosemary's reservations about their eccentricity and the weird noises that she keeps hearing, her husband starts spending time with them. Shortly after Guy lands a plum Broadway role, Rosemary becomes pregnant and the Castavets start taking a special interest in her welfare, and as the sickened Rosemary becomes increasingly isolated, she begins to suspect that the Castavets' circle is not what it seems.