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Playing: A Novel Paperback – Apr 11 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Abrams's debut novel is a revealing look inside the mind of a woman who enjoys being beaten, shamed and dominated by her lover. While pursuing her studies, 27-year-old anthropology graduate student Josie works as a nanny for a single mother with a special-needs son and a baby girl. While Josie may at first seem like a wholesome young woman, it isn't long before she's sneaking out in the middle of the night to rendezvous with her older Indian doctor lover, Devesh, who recognizes her sadomasochistic desires. With great excitement, she allows herself to be bound and whipped, fulfilling her desire to play. As Josie falls in love with Devesh, their bedroom escapades become increasingly brutal, and she struggles to make sense of her need for sexual violence as she explores her relationship with her mother and confronts her guilt about the death of her infant brother, who died under murky circumstances when she was a little girl. The narrative moves fast, and the stark swirl of sex, violence and near-madness will please readers with a dark bent. (Apr.)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The story is about a grad student, Josie, who gets involved with an older man, Devesh, who introduces her to BDSM. Josie gets thoroughly into it, but at the same time, finds that it brings some old issues from her childhood to the surface.
Josie is also working as a nanny, and her relationships with the child and his mother are filled with tension, and that, too, ties into her childhood baggage.
See, Josie has a trauma in her past, one that she's made herself not think about for years but that starts to rise to the surface when she has a child to care for, and when she begins to play with "punishment." I won't spoil what the trauma is, but I will say that it's haunting and that it's not what you might expect.
Josie is a complicated character and I didn't always like her, but I always did want to see what would come next. Devesh is wicked hot, and I love the fact that the author has two different perspectives on kink represented in the book--Josie is using it to work through some emotional issues, and Devesh just loves it because it's fun. After reading the book, I saw an interview with the author where she mentions that she wrote Devesh that way on purpose. I think it's realistic to have both, because I know people who work through emotional issues with their play and others who play for fun's sake alone, and some people who do both depending on their mood at the time.
The "play" scenes in the book are well-written and hot, if you like that sort of thing, but there's a whole lot of other stuff going on too. It's nice to see a story where people have naughty sex lives but also all sorts of real-world problems and full lives. I recommend it, with the caveat that it goes into some pretty upsetting emotional territory, especially where issues of childhood and violence are concerned.
Playing is intended to be a novel in the line of the Marquise de Sade or The Story of O: a novel of sex and psychology which exaggerates the sexual desires of submission and dominances, sadism and masochism, in order to explore what they reveal about human psychology. As such, Abrams begins with a protagonist who has, for as long as she can remember, desired to be punished, bound, and abused, fantasizing about it during "normal" sex acts but also on her own, both aroused and comforted by the thought. When she begins a relationship with Devesh, an eager dominant, Josie is for the first time able to put her fantasies into practice--which raises questions of why she has such desires and how far they extend. Josie believes that her desires are abnormal, and in some ways they are a literal fetish: she must evoke her violent fantasies in order to achieve orgasm. Josie then traces this apparently innate, extreme desire back to childhood trauma.
Some of these concerns--such as the root of submissive or masochistic desires--are quite normal, but reading about them sounds a bit routine, as if Josie's arguments with Devesh are a set of pros and cons picked up off the internet. The rest of Josie's concerns--that her desires are abnormally extreme or unhealthy, that they result from past trauma--amount to very little, despite Abram's attempts to make them major conflicts. The violence which Josie submits to is more than a spanking, but well within the realm of a real-world BDSM relationship. Her fantasies are somewhat more extreme, but hardly unreasonable. All of this could still be a valid problem if her desires had an unhealthy origin, and the book slowly builds up to a repressed and certain traumatic childhood memory. However, immediately after Josie confronts this memory, she comes to terms with her it and all of her problems, with herself and with her sexual desires, disappear. The ending is so short and so simple that Josie's problems, the central conflict of the book, seem like absolutely nothing. If they were as big as Josie believed and they appear to the reader, they could never be dismissed so easily. Abrams's fails in her attempt to analyze psychology within sexuality because she does not explore the long-lasting impact caused by real psychological fetishes.
The rest of the book's strengths and weaknesses are secondary in the face of this fatal flaw. Abram's writing is a bit strange, but still readable--she prefers unusual metaphors (guilt settling like the weight of a cat on her chest, and similar) and dream sequences, and when Josie finally recalls her suppressed memory the narration switches from past to present tense. The oddities quickly go from unique to simply strange, but the text remains readable with a soft, almost lyrical narrative voice. Characterization is simplistic, but the cast of characters fulfill their roles in the plot--Devesh brings Josie's issues of sex and submission to the forefront, and her employer and charges mirror Josie's estranged mother and her (childhood) self. The erotic elements benefit from Abrams's lyrical, almost distracted writing style--they are idealized and yet given an abrupt, harsh edge which makes them both arousing and appropriately violent. The plot has a pensive, slow build towards Josie's revelation, but the end is almost comically brief. In sum, the book is defined by the fact that the conflict falters and dies: the problems are not as severe as they need to be and their resolution is far too swift, and so Josie's concerns appear foolish and small. Abrams tries to write about psychology and sex, about what drives one woman to punish herself, what makes her find such punishment both comforting and arousing. The text, however, is a mere shadow of its intentions: a minor psychological issue, an easily forgotten childhood trauma, a simple and swift resolution all of which make the book disappointing and forgettable. Interested readers would be better to borrow than buy this book, since it holds little reread potential. Personally, I do not recommend it. In its place, I do recommend The Story of O--another book about the psychology of submission that is in much the same vein but manages to be both intensely erotic and intelligently psychological--and similar texts.