Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis
Soho, 2014; 246 pp
Reviewed by Courtney Craggett
I can’t remember the last time I read a book that was as much fun as Dylan Landis’ Rainey Royal. The setting alone is alluring: a large artist-filled brownstone in New York in the 70s. The cover is bright pink and gold. The characters are larger than life: an aging jazz musician. a Puerto Rican girl taking care of her grandmother, a daughter of an interior decorator obsessed with order and science. And then there’s Rainey Royal.
Sometimes books give a name to a type of person who was never named before, like Ebenezer Scrooge or Don Quixote. Rainey Royal feels like that. She is 14 when the book opens, “just a girl trying to get from the entry hall of the townhouse to her pink room on the third floor” unnoticed. She lives with her narcissistic father, Howard, and her home is a revolving door of her father’s protégés and fans. Through a series of linked stories spanning about 10 years, the novel takes Rainey from a young girl sneaking up to her pink bedroom to a woman in her mid-twenties making a living off of her art.
Rainey has few adults helping her figure out her world. Her father gives her a birth control pill at breakfast each morning and then mostly leaves her to raise herself. When Rainey is raped later in the novel, she goes to her father, and he says, “Listen. Young men get confused about yes and no. I wish girls could understand that.” Her mother has abandoned her to study yoga at an ashram in Colorado, and one of the most poignant chapters in the novel is devoted to her departure.
While Rainey’s parents are ignoring her, their friend Gordy gives her too much attention, sneaking into her room each night and stroking her hair. Howard doesn’t know about it, and Rainey doesn’t tell him, because, “What would Howard even say? He strokes your hair – and?” Her teachers know that something is wrong at home, but Rainey refuses their pity and interest.
Rainey is navigating this world on her own, and she finds her own guides, first from the patron saint of artists, Saint Catherine of Bologna, whose page she rips from a library book (“Oh, relax,” she tells the woman sitting across from her), and then from her friends, who are almost as interesting as Rainey.
There’s Tina, who bullies other girls alongside Rainey and robs a couple at gunpoint. From Tina, Rainey learns to take ownership of her sexuality. “Rainey would like to ask Tina a few things when she comes over, though she won’t,” writes Landis. “Where does she get her God-given ability to not give a fuck?” Tina punishes Gordy for his attention to Rainey by taunting him sexually. She invites him to rub her back and then just when he is getting interested says, “I don’t want a back rub anymore.” And Rainey “marvels at the expansion of her own night-vocabulary. Quit it. Don’t want. Anymore.”
As tough as Tina seems, though, she needs Rainey. As an adult, “she wishes she could fuse with all of Rainey’s men.” She protects Rainey as well as she can and is by her side when Rainey’s father dies. The novel ends with a chapter in her point of view, as if the way Rainey affects her friends is as important and worth studying as the person Rainey is herself.
There’s also Leah, the protagonist of Landis’ first book, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, who lives in a white apartment and injects mice with Halothanadol for science. Leah is the frequent target of Rainey’s cruelty, yet she worships Rainey. When Rainey grabs her wrist, “Half of her wants her wrist back, and half of her wants Rainey to hold it all morning.” For Rainey, Leah frees the mice in her lab and purchases a wedding cake to eat in her apartment, because she loves the way Rainey can make her feel “that she is the most thrilling person Rainey knows.”
I can look back on my own life and name the Rainey Royals, the girls I was afraid of and somehow still admired. The ones I felt pity for and whose attention I somehow still secretly craved. I imagine many people can. Not only has Dylan Landis captured this character perfectly in her depiction of Rainey, she has also captured what it is like to live in the shadow of such a person. Rainey Royal is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time, but it is also proof that pleasure and substance are not mutually exclusive. The book explores sexuality, and art, and the strange ways that humans can affect each other, yet it does it all through this mesmerizing and unforgettable young woman who smells like tea-rose oil and paints her bedroom bright pink.