CRO's Reviews > Set This House in Order

Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff
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's review
Jul 27, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: psychological-fiction, goodreads-stalking, books-read-in-2011
Read in July, 2011

3 3/4 stars

Yeah!! -- more Goodreads stalking. I love it when goodread users put links to other, really good writers in their reviews of not so good (or not as good) writers:)

Who doesn't love a good book/ movie about multiple personality disorders? Sign me up. I've been hooked on this type of book/ plot device/ whatever since I saw that mini series - Sybil - with Sally Fields - when I was in high school. I was home sick and the afternoon movie (the two part movie was almost 20 years old at that point) was Sybil - I made sure I stayed home a second day just so I could see the second half. Anyway, division of the soul/ personality - such an amazing feat of ingenuity and imagination is always going to be a hook for people who love to immerse themselves in the world of the imagination - and by this I mean authors and avid readers/ movie watchers. And also (and with this I've got to use my imagination, not being a writer myself) writers specifically must be drawn to this type of hook because it must pretty aptly describe - to some extent - what goes on inside their heads (except I hope without all of that losing time and loss of memory). What is an author but a collector and cultivator of characters/ personalities that are used to express his/her emotions and world view point?

This book, despite what the title says, is actually less like a romance and more like a survivor's manual for troubled souls. Matt Ruff's book is all about the after effects of violence. And not just any kind of violence - and I don't think I'm being overly dramatic here - we're talking about encounters with evil. It's not the violence of revenge or passion (the flip side of love), or violence that comes from accidents and unthinking actions and selfishness, or even violence that can be attributed to greed. Because all of those types of crimes take into account some kind of underlying emotional reasoning or circumstances - that there is a human being - a flawed human being - but some kind of human being present. But the kind of violence that the characters in this book have survived has been perpetrated by sociopaths - basically soulless people who have given up their rights to be called human beings. So the reasoning and the motivation for these crimes is unknowable - basically - yes - evil. OK, that makes it sound like Silence of the Lambs or something. It's not. It's a supremely interesting, beautifully written piece. And luckily, Ruff doesn't spend too much time rolling around in the gorey details of the actual crimes or too much time flogging himself and the readers with questions of "How could this ever of happened to such good people?!" Ruff, instead is much more interested in getting right down to the brass tacks of the issues. These crimes, perpetrated by evil, have occurred. How do the characters then, move on, survive, and heal without becoming monsters or broken people? To me, that is the really interesting part.

And the survivor's of the violence in this book are not just the two main characters - our hero and heroine with multiple personality disorder - Andrew's (the male protagonist) landlady as well as Andrew's boss each have their own battle scars. Andrew and Penny (the female protagonist) have probably come up with the most interesting and imaginative way to survive their gruesome and abusive childhoods. They have fractured their personalities - preferring to deal with their lives and their past in pieces until they have reached a point, in adulthood, where the pieces can be reconfigured or, as in Andrew's case, just really well organized. And with Mrs. Wallis the landlady; she has survived the brutal murder of her family only to be systematically harassed by mail sent by the escaped murderer. She survives by transforming herself into some sort of mother/ protector/ sentinel for both Andrew and her small neighborhood on the outskirts of Portland. Julie, Penny and Andrew's boss, has also survived an abusive childhood, but even though the violence of here experience is not as great, I feel that, at the end of the novel, hers is the character that is still the most splintered and the least whole. Julie is still unable to get out of her own way. She still can not settle down to a career or relationship that can engage her for more than a few months. There is this sort of anxious, skittishness about her - she just jumps from place to place, person to person without ever really emotionally connecting. In fact she will out right flee from emotional intimacy. What is Ruff trying to say with her character? Is it better to be completely broken so that you have a chance to openly acknowledge your pain - so that you can somehow allow yourself to heal cleanly (or at the very least to allow yourself to recollect cleanly)? As much as I didn't like Julie's character - she is an emotionally manipulative tease who seems to like to collect people seemingly more emotionally damaged than herself so that she can feel superior - I could see that the breaks in her soul had never been properly acknowledged or allowed to heal. It was like she was limping around on a lame leg that had been broken, but because it had never been set properly, the bone that had regrown was badly misshapen and so she still limps.

I was really very impressed with this novel - but before I get to the good stuff - there were some things that bothered me about this book - and of course - to talk about the not so great stuff I have to reveal plot twists. So, because I have not managed to master all that html stuff - if you want to be surprised don't read beyond this point.

***************SPOILER ALERT******************

Things that bothered me: How many cases of MPD can there be that 2 of them manage to be working in the same field in the same very small geographical area? I don't have the research on this to back it up, but I will say that this fact was definitely stretching my willingness to disbelieve. That, and also what were the chances that Andrew - as the personality of Xavier - would just happen to be outside the stepfather's house - or even just lurking in the vicinity - just at the right moment that the sheriff is going to purposefully watch the stepfather bleed to death? And the whole other subplot of the sheriff and his failed attempt to kill Penny and Andrew - I just felt it was so unnecessary - very murder mystery, movie of the week in it's feel. It wasn't needed for what, I felt, the author was trying to accomplish with Andrew's emotional closure.

Another aspect of the book that bothered me was the Crying Game like reveal of Andrew's true sex. Andrew is revealed to be a male soul that lives in the body of a female. I don't mind that the character is found out to be actually female, I don't even mind that the author cunningly hid this fact until 2/3 through the novel. I can go with the flow just as much as anybody else when it comes to gender bending twists and turns. But what did bother me, was that the sexual transformation was never explained in a nuts and bolts kind of way. Everyone in the novel treats Andrew as a male, so the character must be very successful at passing as a male, but how was this done? Were there hormones involved, did Andrew strap himself down, did his obsessive working out keep him lean and muscular enough so that the rounded feminine features just weren't as evident? Every other aspect of Andrew's physical existence - what personality eats what and when, who is in charge of each and every morning toiletry down to who takes the morning dump - is thoroughly explained,why not explain to me about this instead of just breezing right by it?

I was also unhappy with the ambiguous resolution of the relationship between Penny and Andrew. I was promised a romance of the souls - see it's right there in the title. I wanted Andrew, in the end to have it all. Serenity, self reliance... and and adult loving relationship that included satisfying sex. On that front all we got were false starts and briefly described, prematurely broken off, traumatic experiences (at least for Penny). Don't think me a perv, I didn't necessarily need the sex gratuitously described to me (just like I don't need the violence gratuitously described to me), I just wanted to know that Andrew was going to be happy and OK in that respect. But Ruff, opted for the more realistic, less harlequin-style ending. But why oh why, Matt Ruff - I'd been through so much with you - I willingly suspended my disbelief to go on this ride with you - so that you could have this very unique (although probably not very realistic) world and circumstances with which to weave your story. Couldn't I have just one really sweet and satisfying kiss between Andrew and Penny described to me, please? Oh well.

Regardless... this was a very well crafted, thought provoking story. That Ruff could have so many balls/ characters/ personalities up in the air at once and not have the plot collapse or the peripheral characters get plowed under is astonishing and a testament to his skills as a writer - my picky comments not withstanding. And believe it or not, the characters and story are written in such a way that the reader does not get confused by which personality is in what body. I do apologize to Matt Ruff that my praise for his work does not in word count go on for as long as my criticisms and verbal wanderings about theme and survival. But this is just proof, in my eyes, of how really well written a book is that I have so much to discuss and think about. Trust me, I would not waste my time writing so much about a book that was poorly written. In the end, what I really liked was that, for Matt Ruff's characters at least, survival didn't come down to an either/ or equation: endure or be destroyed. Sometimes problems need to be come at slyly - sideways even. Enduring brute strength in the face of opposition, and the thirst for the revenge are all things that are highly overrated - unless you are an action hero in a high budget Hollywood movie. An act of strong will should always take second place to an act of pure imagination, although I am in no way diminishing the importance of the former. An imagination allows you to see the bigger picture - to envision more possibilities for existence than just endure or die ...or seeking revenge - and Ruff very eloquently argues this point of view.

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