The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin. Library copy. Cybils shortlist.
The Plot: Matthew tells his story to his younger sister, Emmy; the story of their lives when Emmy was still small. When Matthew, Emmy, and their sister Callie lived with their mother and dreamed of escape. Nikki, their mother, is hugs and kisses one day; curses and slaps the next. It's an uncertain way to live; and Matthew begins to hope that something will change when he sees a man in a store stand up to a man shouting at a small child. By a twist of fate, this man, Murdoch, starts dating Nikki. Maybe, things will change. But Matthew has forgotten the rules of survival; including the rule of not hoping for escape.
The Good: This is not an easy read; it is unsettling and upsetting, a look at physical, psychological and emotional abuse.
Nikki has to be mentally ill; the way she treats these children is chilling. Nikki is not like the mother in Hugging the Rock by Susan Taylor Brown; in that book, the mother, while ill, is not abusive; that mother never wanted to be a mother; and that mother, perhaps, does what is best for her child by becoming an absent parent.
Matthew, Callie, and Emmy could only hope to be so lucky; it would be a dream come true for their mother to drive away and never come back. The problem isn't just that Nikki is a bad parent; the problem is that Nikki believes herself a good mother. Nikki believes that she loves her children. She sees herself as teaching her children how to have "fun" while she dances on the edge of danger.
Nikki doesn't see her children as individuals; she sees them as extensions of herself, feeling and believing and acting as she does. I was reminded of Diane Downs; I was reminded of fiction about immature teen mothers, who talk about the child only in terms of what the child will bring the mother, or only in terms of a child no different from a doll, who will do as the mother needs, who will act and believe and think as the mother wants.
Nikki expects her children to read her mind; to be happy when she is, sad when she is, to know when to be spirited and when to disappear. These become the "rules of survival" for Matthew and his siblings.
Another fascinating and disturbing part of this book is Nikki's ability to appear "normal" to others and her ability to manipulate men. Nikki pretends that all is well with Murdoch; at other times, she meets men who she gets to do almost anything. Matthew, her son, wonders at this; his father tries to explain, but the explanation rings hollow -- these men are weak. Nikki is pretty and flirtatious. It leaves Matthew to wonder, is he strong? Or weak? Would he allow someone like Nikki to twist and turn him?
Matthew and Callie try their best to protect their young sister, Emmy. It turns out they do too good a job. Emmy feels safe enough to speak out; safe enough to provoke Nikki into anger and violence. It becomes a scary moment for the reader, as well as for Matthew and Callie. You cheer that Emmy feels safe, that her self has been protected enough that she is spirited and not scarred. You are as confused as Matthew and Callie as you wonder what is best for Emmy; should she, too, learn the rules of survival, learn to not speak up? Or has Emmy learned a different set of rules; is she finding excitement, "fun," as the mother would say, in provoking Nikki?
It is Emmy, more than himself, more than Callie, that drives Matthew to take action. What he does and tries to do; what he fails to do; is fascinating and thought provoking.
I can't help but mention Nikki again; because she is the scariest mother I have met in fiction in a long time. She is scary because of how she treats her children; and she is scary because she fails to see anything wrong with her behavior; her belief that she is a fun mom; her unpredictability; the abuse she dishes out.... I want her to disappear or die as much as her children do. She is beyond redemption; the only thing that can be redeemed, that can be saved, is her children. And with every page, you hope that Michael can save himself and his sisters.
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