Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Review: Strange Toys by Patricia Geary

Strange Toys by Patricia Geary
Published: Bantam Spectra, 1987
Awards Won: Philip K. Dick Award

Tbe Book:

Pet is the youngest daughter in an unusual family.  Her parents—known to her as Stan and Linwood—take a non-traditional approach to childrearing, but their sophisticated home is turned upside down by Pet’s oldest sister, Deane.  Deane, the ‘bad child’, became interested in voodoo and unsavory company, leading to her eventual arrest. When Stan and Linwood go on the run with their other two daughters, Pet begins to realize that she also has some natural talent for the occult.

Pet will have three chances to confront the supernatural, to either use its power or allow it to use her.  First, when she is a confused child, trying to protect the people she loves.  Second, when she is an irresponsible teen, desperate to find some kind of truth.  Third, when she is an adult bodybuilder, dedicated to becoming a powerful woman. Pet must find the strength to understand both Deane and herself.” ~Allie

This is my first review for WWEnd’s Women of GenreFiction.  Therefore, this is my first Patricia Geary novel, and I picked it up at a secondhand bookstore.  This is the second of her four novels, preceded by Living in Ether (1982) and followed by The Other Canyon (2002) and Guru Cigarettes (2005).

My Thoughts:

Strange Toys was separated into three parts, the three periods of Pet’s life when she encountered the supernatural.  Pet was a very different person at each point of the journey, and I thought the distinction between child, teenage, and adult voice was very well done.  Since the supernatural part of the story involved voodoo, the stories tended to revolve more around New Orleans than Pet’s childhood home of southern California.  Each story built to a climactic event, but the first two ended before actually reaching it.  I found it a little irritating to only see the conclusion through flashbacks.  However, this story is really about Pet and her development, so I can appreciate that it is more important to see how she incorporates events into her identity after the fact.  Since the story is broken into three parts, I’m going to address each stage of Pet’s life separately.

In terms of both story and character, I felt that the section featuring Pet as a child was the strongest part of the novel. It seemed to me that Geary captured the perspective of a child remarkably well. Pet’s information and understanding was limited, and her stable world was as small as her immediate family. Many of her experiences left me feeling nostalgic for my own childhood,such as the long car trips, the engrossing games she and her sister June played with their toys, and the affectionate/bullying relationship they shared. Since she was a child, she approached the supernatural in a very matter-of-fact way, with little doubt of the reality of her experiences.  Pet didn’t really understand what had happened with Deane, but she knew that her family was in danger.  It was her desire to protect her family that pushed Pet towards the occult, and pushed the story forward.  The tension in the situation always left me wanting to read more, and I found Pet to be a very sympathetic child protagonist.

I was less engaged with Pet’s teenage incarnation, though I enjoyed how different she was from child Pet. It seemed that Pet was portrayed as the popular idea of a typical teenager—preoccupied with makeup, sex, and partying, and possessing almost no ability to make sensible decisions.  I enjoyed learning more about voodoo in this section, though I wasn’t completely thrilled with how the information was imparted. Most of it was given through conversations with the extremely stereotyped Alonso, a much older Native American man with whom she had a brief sexual relationship. The plot seemed mostly driven by Pet making a series of remarkably bad decisions, which left me feeling more exasperated by her character than drawn in by the story. 

As an adult, Pet was much more in control of herself and aware of what she wanted out of life.  In several ways, I could see how different aspects of her past shaped her adult identity. She lived a strict healthy bodybuilding lifestyle, and, in a very literal sense, she had made herself very powerful.  However, her disdain for less fit people was a little grating to read. In terms of story, this section seemed mostly about Pet achieving a sense of closure, so it lacked some of the momentum and tension of the earlier stages of her life.

Though I favored the story of Pet’s childhood, I enjoyed the treatment of the supernatural through all three stories. It was always in the background, and never completely understood. Most of the things that were affected by magic could also be explained through overactive imagination, drugs, or simply coincidence.  As one of the strictures of the novel’s voodoo claimed, “Coincidence is the perfect texture.” The story seemed to stress that there would always be a large element of unknown in the supernatural, and this was also shown to be true in more mundane life.  For instance, though Deane was a major force in Pet’s life, Pet and the reader only ever know very little about her. This emphasis of the unknown is also seen the in conclusion of the novel—the significance of the final events is left open to interpretation.  Most questions were not explicitly answered, which I think it was a fitting end to this kind of story. 

 My Rating: 3.5/5

Strange Toys tells the story of the three times Pet encounters the supernatural: once as a child, once as a teenager, and once as an adult.  Her voice and character are dramatically different in each segment, but I was most impressed by the portrayal of Pet as a child.  I felt like the first section of the story was also the most interesting narrative, with clear stakes and constant underlying tension.  I found it difficult to care about Pet as a teenager, as she continued to make one extremely bad decision after another, and the final section seemed very mild in comparison with the others. Overall, though, I liked how the supernatural parts were never fully explained, and how so much of the meaning of the story was left to the reader’s interpretation.  The ending may be too open for some readers’ tastes, but I think that the conclusion fit the style of Pet’s story very well.  

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