Never before have I been so transfixed by such an unlikable character. The titular Rainey Royal is a skilled manipulator, oversexed and under-supervised in early '70s New York. She steals. She bullies. She licks her teeth at her male teachers. She has a lot of emptiness in her life, and she will apparently do anything to try to fill it.
The thing is, I recognized Rainey—she easily could have been one of my tempestuous, attention-seeking sophomores from my first year of teaching. She's one of those girls I would have tried to “get through to,” and I suspect I would have failed just as miserably as Rainey's well-meaning but clumsy chemistry teacher does with her.
Despite her flexible morality and simmering latent anger, Rainey isn't beyond redemption. She's a vibrant artist with a startlingly creative mind. But she's never recovered from her mother leaving, and her father Howard is a hippie musician who is too frank about some topics and not frank enough about others. He fills the house with other musicians, “acolytes” (Rainey's word) who will stroke his massive ego, and largely ignores his daughter. And if he isn't aware that his best friend and roommate Gordy goes into Rainey's room at night, it's because he willfully ignores that too. It's no wonder Rainey searches in desperation for anyone who will truly see her, without judgment or ulterior motive.
The novel, told in loosely connected chapters, spans about ten years of Rainey's tumultuous life. It's not so much the story of a bad girl making good, because it seems that in some ways she will always be a little bit vulnerable, a little bit broken. But it feels honest. It feels like Landis painted this character in front of a live model.
Rainey Royal will be on my mind for quite some time.
With regards to NetGalley and Soho Press for the advance copy. On sale September 9.