The night was mild and balmy and they walked; and as they approached the Bramford’s blackened mass they saw on the sidewalk before it a group of twenty or so people gathered in a semicircle at the side of a parked car. Two police cars waited double-parked, their roof lights spinning red (35).
Ira Levin’s influential novel remains quite readable, and makes a devilish companion piece to the Halloween season.
Title: Rosemary’s Baby
Author: Ira Levin
ISBN-10 : 0451194004
ISBN-13 : 978-0451194008
A young woman and her husband, an up-and-coming actor, move into the Bramford, an apartment with a disturbing history. Rosemary gradually begins to suspect that her doofy, eccentric neighbours are not what they seem, and that dark forces are working in her life. Are her incredible suspicions correct, or is she going slowly insane?
Levin’s gradual and unsettling hints that something really has gone amiss induces paranoia. We wrestle with the notion that people as banal and ludicrous as the Castevets could be agents of pure evil, or that Guy could so casually barter his wife’s body and mental health for personal gain.
But of course they could.
I generally like how Levin handles his ending, but I recognize it will be a let-down for some readers. It is also a little too literal. Only the book’s dark comedic aspect and Levin’s deft style permit Rosemary’s Baby to get away with that, and the film, wisely, does not show us the child.
Imagery: 5/6 Levin juxtaposes the everyday with the unbelievable, forcing us to question our own sense of reality.
Story: 6/6 The novel has been meticulously plotted, from its cryptic clues to the birth of the baby, in June 1966 (6/66).
Characterization: 6/6 Rosemary is as fully-realized a character as any in contemporary literature, while the others hide complexities that cannot be reconciled easily, but which seem credible nonetheless.
Emotional Response: 5/6 Rosemary’s manipulation by her husband, her neighbours, and male doctors will resonate with many female readers in particular, while a powerful sense of paranoia permeates the narrative throughout. The author would return to similar themes in The Stepford Wives and to conspiracy generally in The Boys From Brazil. His long-running play Deathtrap demonstrates his ability to keep us in suspense. But he handles all of these things best, arguably in Rosemary’s Baby.
Editing: 6/6 Levin’s style is easy to read—deceptively so, for much roils beneath the surface of his matter-of-fact prose. Reread the passage quoted at the start of the review. Two people stroll into the scene of an event to which emergency responders have been called. And yet the shadow of ancient superstition, the sense that we’re seeing something else, should be evident enough.
Overall: 6/6 Rosemary’s Baby, movie and book, defy easy classification. We’re watching a strained domestic drama, a dark comedy, and a psychological thriller that only gradually confirms its supernatural elements. The blend proves most unsettling.
Rosemary’s Baby was birthed by a particular place and time. Time, in fact, had just run its notorious “Is God Dead?” issue. Many people were questioning religion’s place in society, while evangelical and fundamentalist Christians began to double down on their more antimodern beliefs. The west’s fringe flirtation with occultism in the face of scientific rationality was on an upswing, one influenced in part by the success of this book and movie.1 It is very difficult for contemporary readers (or viewers) to experience Rosemary’s Baby in the way that many people would have in the second half of the 1960s.
In total, Rosemary’s Baby receives 38/42
1. Any footnote on occultist beliefs in the west in the twentieth century will misrepresent the complexity of the topic. Modern spiritualism is a product of the second half of the nineteenth century. The Ouija board gets introduced in 1890, though as much as a pass-time as anything else. World War One-era spiritualists seem to be the first to have used it seriously, at least widely. There’s no question that the war and its immediate aftermath saw a high point in such beliefs, with prominent people expressing interest and hosting seances. Many mediums were discredited in the decades that follow, and such beliefs were relegated to the fringe by the post-World War Two era, preserved mainly as comic clichés and horror movie tropes. They burbled back up to the surface in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the evangelical-driven Satanic Panic of the 1980s often imaged the enemy in the form of circa 1970s occult faddists, albeit ascribing to them more horrific activities.