Not-A-Review of Son of Rosemary, by Ira Levin

Last week, I wrote a review for Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, and it’s safe to say that even if it wasn’t perfect (what book is?), I still very much enjoyed it. So when I found out that my local library had the sequel on the shelves, how could I pass up the chance to read that too?

…I really should have passed up the chance.

Before you read any further, WARNING – There will be spoilers for Son of Rosemary and Rosemary’s Baby in this not-a-review rant of mine.

Son of RosemarySon of Rosemary takes place in 1999, just before the turn of the millennium, and it turns out that Rosemary has been in a curse-induced coma for almost 3 decades. Now that the cursed has been lifted, she sets about trying to adjust to a very different world, and also to reunite with her son, whom she named Andy. Andy, who looks identical to the stereotypical Western image of Jesus, and who is beloved the world over for his work in reconciling and uniting all peoples, regardless of faith, location, experience, etc, under one banner. Andy swears he has nothing to do with Satanism or his real father anymore, that he works for the good of humanity, but as time passes, Rosemary gets increasingly suspicious that Andy’s organization is up to something sinister after all.

If you go into this book expecting the same kind of character development you found in Rosemary’s Baby, you’re going to be disappointed. Whereas a lot of Rosemary’s Baby was given over to character development via dialogue and snapshots of the characters living their lives, Son of Rosemary relies far more on narration to move the story along, and honestly… the narration doesn’t move the story along. Very little of interest actually happens most of the time, and when interesting things do happen, they’re rushed and seem more than a little convoluted and confused, like the author had too many ideas in his head and wasn’t quite sure how to get them properly down on paper.

The main convoluted point of the story is what Andy’s motive is, and the motive of his group, and whether or not Andy actually has as much control over himself as he thinks. He says he wants nothing more to do with Satan or Satan’s plans, and for the most part that seems to be true. The secret rituals he conducts are less Satanic and more… dark New Age, though honestly, enough people still get New Age and pagan practices confused with Satanism that I’m not legitimately unsure if anyone was meant to see it that way or just assume that it really is thinly veiled Satanism, regardless of Andy’s claims. Either way.

But the ultimate plan for the group is to distribute candles that everyone the world over will light at the same time, demonstrating humankind’s togetherness, only those candles… “The candles begin releasing a virus that’s suspended in a gas.” (pp 241) I’m not even going to attempt to critique the science behind that one. But this will wipe out humanity, as per Satan’s desires. Satan himself actually went so far as attempting to kill Andy so that he doesn’t tell Rosemary the truth, because Andy has known this was the end-goal all along, and Satan knew that Andy would want to tell Rosemary so that she could… be saved? Stop the Lighting? It’s not exactly clear.

Regardless, we’ve now got a situation where Andy was doing exactly what Satan wanted while saying he wanted nothing to do with Satan, attempting to work both for and against Satan’s plans, and honestly, none of it adds up. By the end, it’s impossible to see what Andy’s motives are, what he thinks, why he does anything. We see through the novel that he keeps his horns and claws and other demonic attributes hidden through a sort of glamour, and sometimes his control over that slips, so it’s possible to interpret the whole thing as Andy attempting to have nothing to do with Satan except that sometimes his diabolical heritage can’t be subsumed, and so he couldn’t help actively working toward Satan’s goals anyway.

Which makes me wonder how he didn’t sabotage his own plans during his moments of greater control.

Rosemarys BabyOf course, any inconsistencies can be easily be explained by the novel’s ending, which is that Rosemary wakes up from a terrible nightmare and discovers that it was all a dream.

And yes, I am wincing as I type that. Because wow. Just… wow. Everything that happened from the first page of Rosemary’s Baby was just a terrible terrible dream she was having.

She even comments to her husband that it all being a dream explains some of the inconsistencies between real life and what she experienced, so phew, isn’t it good that none of it was real? Only then they get a phone call from their long-time friend, Hutch, who informs them that he has a great proposal for them – a friend of his needs someone to house-sit for a year, in the very same building that inspired Rosemary’s devil-baby dream, and they could live there rent-free, so wouldn’t that be great? And Rosemary stares into the distance, wondering whether or not to put herself in the same place where the nightmare all started.

There are two ways to interpret this ending, and neither of them are particularly great.

1. At the end of Rosemary’s nightmare, Satan is literally taking her to hell, promising her an eternity of torment. When she wakes up, she comments to Guy, “It went on and on, and I slept, and it started again, and went on and on…” (pp 251) Which could be interpreted to mean that for Rosemary, by the time we’re seeing her wake up on the pages of the book, she has already lived the whole scenario more than once. “It started again.” So her dream wasn’t really a dream so much as a vague memory of the past, and she is stuck in an eternal time-loop in hell, where she keeps reliving the worst period of her life. Her rape, her abuse by a Satanic coven, people conspiring against her, being in a coma and losing decades of her life, seeing her son hurt, being helpless to stop the end of the world, being dragged into hell only to start the whole terrible scenario all over again. It was all real, and it will always be real.

The biggest point against this? Tannis. Tannis is the fungus that Rosemary was given through her pregnancy to help strengthen her baby’s demonic self. It’s clearly established as a fungus. In Son of Rosemary, it’s revealed to be related to cannabis, and can get people high. Okay… No. Because Rosemary ingested a whole bunch of that stuff when she was pregnant, and did not experience anything remotely similar to what ingesting or inhaling cannabis can do. Other than perfectly justified paranoia, anyway. So to assume that it was all real doesn’t explain this. It doesn’t explain any of the inconsistencies across the stories, nearly all of which come to light when you try to reconcile the first book with its sequel.

2. It really was all just a horrific dream. No more inconsistencies that can’t just be easily explained away by dreams being dreams and not always making sense. Bam. Everything’s fine.

Except that is the most weak and pathetic ending ever. I knew it was a weak and pathetic ending when I tried to use it as I grew bored with a 4th grade writing assignment, more than a year before Son of Rosemary was written. If a little kid knows it’s a cheap cop-out, a well-established writer should know it’s a cheap cop-out. “It was all a dream,” is a laughable ending, one that erases all the work that came before and signals to readers that the writer had no freaking clue how to actually end the story and so just negated it all.

Ultimately, there is nothing good I can really say about Son of Rosemary. It had none of the flair and originality of Rosemary’s Baby, the characters were generally pretty lifeless and uninteresting, and there is no positive or redeeming way to interpret that ending. I can see why so many people finish this book and are angry about it. Reading it felt like a waste of time. It’s one of the few books that I actively feel is best dealt with by pretending it doesn’t exist. It attempts to answer a “what if?” question that didn’t really need answering (sometimes ambiguous endings add more power to a story), and takes Rosemary’s story from being a compelling look at a woman in a very bad situation to a weak end-of-the-world thriller, and that does the first novel a great disservice.

I didn’t feel I could properly write a review for this book. You can call this a review if you like, but myself, I call it a rant. This was written purely to get this stuff off my chest, not to advise people whether or not it’s a good idea to read this book. From a reviewer’s perspective, I will say that if you enjoyed Rosemary’s Baby, then leave it at that. Enjoy the first book for what it is, but know that you’re missing absolutely nothing of worth if you don’t read the sequel.

Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 7, 2017

Summary: Rosemary Woodhouse and her struggling actor husband Guy move into the Bramford, an old New York City apartment building with an ominous reputation and mostly elderly residents. Neighbors Roman and Minnie Castevet soon come nosing around to welcome the Woodhouses to the building, and despite Rosemary’s reservations about their eccentricity and the weird noises that she keeps hearing, her husband takes a shine to them.

Shortly after Guy lands a plum Broadway role, Rosemary becomes pregnant—and the Castevets start taking a special interest in her welfare. As the sickened Rosemary becomes increasingly isolated, she begins to suspect that the Castevets’ circle is not what it seems…

Review: After watching the movie for the first time, I was thrilled to realise that my local library had a copy of the novel. I hadn’t even known it was a novel until randomly seeing it on the shelves. And since I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, I decided to see if I would enjoy the novel in the same way.

What I can say honestly is that without going into any other detail, if you enjoyed the movie, you’ll enjoy the book. It reads the very same way. It has the same content, barring the book’s few additional scenes when compared to the movie. Whether this was because Levin also wrote for the stage and thus knew what would adapt well between the novel and an acted adaptation, I couldn’t say. But if you’ve seen the movie, it’s nearly impossible to not hear the actors’ voices when you read character dialogue, and the dialogue itself was practically word-for-word between the movie and the novel.

On the plus side, that worked to make the movie one of the most faithful adaptations I have ever seen, and in a world filled with lousy movie adaptations, that’s saying something.

But enough about the movie. Let’s talk more about the book.

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse move into the Bramford, intending to live quite happily with the hopes of Guy getting more acting work and Rosemary being a stay-at-home mother. As you do when it’s the 60s. After meeting their rather eccentric neighbours, the Castevets, Guy’s acting career seems to take off while Rosemary, newly-pregnant and increasingly ill from it, develops strong suspicions that something is wrong with just about every part of her life, and somehow, it all traces back to the Castevets and their interest in her baby.

It’s hardly a spoiler at this point to say that their interest stems from the fact that Rosemary is pregnant not with Guy’s child, but with Satan’s. The Castevets and their friends are Satanists, and their involvement is part of a literally diabolical plot to bring about the Antichrist. Guy made a deal to give his wife to the Satanic coven for a night to accomplish this, not because he’s a long-time Satanist, but because he’s promised success in his career if he agrees. The typical devil’s pact, really.

Did Rosemary have a say in this? Not at all. In fact, she was partly drugged when her rape occurred, and it was only partly because she didn’t like the taste of the dessert she was given that was intended to drug her, and so she threw some away, not getting the full dose of what was meant to know her out and make her forget literally being raped by Satan.

In fact, much of what happens in this book is a testament to why women having agency is extremely important. With the story taking place in the 1960s (and being written then too, so you will often encounter what is considered today to be embarrassingly outdated terminology, especially for minority groups), Rosemary, despite being quite a determined character, is often overridden in her desires and need by the men around her. She is given to the coven by her husband, with no say in the matter — passed around like an object in order to further Guy’s career. She is pushed to changing obstetricians, with the new doctor telling her not to listen to her friends or to read books about pregnancy, only to listen to him, because “every pregnancy is different,” and getting advice elsewhere will just make her panic her pretty little head off. When Rosemary finally breaks and seeks out her original obstetrician in the hope of gaining safety from the coven, that doctor’s response is to lie, tell her he’ll help, and then calling both Rosemary’s husband and her new doctor to come and pick her up. Because a pregnant woman’s fears, even if they are about something most people would find unbelievable, are nothing in the face of getting her back with the men she fears are trying to harm her and her unborn child.

And quite frankly, it’s safe to say that the Antichrist wouldn’t have been born had someone treated Rosemary like a person with thoughts, worth, and agency of her own. I doubt this was Levin’s intention to convey, but really, it’s a message that’s easy to take from the story. Treat women like crap, and the Adversary wins.

Rosemary’s Baby is a book that feels both timeless and dated in different measures. The story may take place in the 60s, and there’s plenty of detail to demonstrate the place and time to really centre the reader in the scene, but it’s also a story that has been told many times before and after, the “what if?” appeal calling to people and making them question what could feasibly happen if the Antichrist really did come into the world. But rather than pull the focus back and have the story be about the huge earth-shaking ramifications of this, Levin zooms in and instead concentrates on the woman who would be a mother to said devil-baby. Who is she? What’s her story? How did it happen to her? What did she think and feel and do?

As for Levin’s writing, it flows quite well, and his strength really seems to be dialogue. The characters really come through in what they say, and Levin doesn’t rely on tonal adjectives to get things across, letting the reader figure it out from the words themselves. It works surprisingly well, though in fairness, I’m saying that after having watched the movie first, so I already had somebody’s interpretation of the lines in my mind as I read. Perhaps it might not be so clear if someone’s is reading this before watching the movie, I really can’t say.

But having the characters show through the dialogue still works quite well for streamlining a story. For instance, in a scene where Rosemary talks with her obstetrician about the pain she’s experiencing, and how she worries about an ectopic pregnancy, she explains to her doctor that she saw the term on a pregnancy book at the drugstore. One simple line of dialogue about where she got the idea encapsulates what could have been an entire scene, but wasn’t, and didn’t need to be. Levin takes away a lot of extraneous elements, boils things down until they can be conveyed concisely, and yet still manages to fit a surprising amount of detail into those short paragraphs.

Which brings to me to something that made me chuckle a bit. I read the 50th anniversary edition, which has an introduction by another author who, admittedly, I have never heard of. I’d like to share a short quote from that introduction, regarding said author’s praise of Levin’s attention to detail.

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This level of detail floors you? Have you tried reading, oh, I don’t know, just about any book ever? Levin’s writing has some wonderful detail in it, yes, little things that make so much of what he writes feel real and alive and so very believable, but the colour of someone’s clothes and the date on the calendar really are not the best examples of this. It’s so much glowing praise given to laughably simplistic detail, and it felt more like the author of the introduction was praising the concept of Levin’s skill rather than any actual skill.

I’m not sure I would class Rosemary’s Baby as horror, per se, since nothing in it was particularly scary, with the exception of the mundane scary stuff like women being treated like objects, or nobody believing you when you tell them there’s a problem. I think it’s better to say that Rosemary’s Baby was more of a supernatural thriller, though the supernatural parts, interestingly, stick close to the background. They’re essential to the story, yes, but most of the story’s tension comes from Rosemary’s thoughts and reactions, trying to figure out what’s going on in her life and coping with the fact that something she longed for is going so badly. The compelling elements come not from curses or dark magic malevolence, but from Rosemary moving through her life, short bursts of the mundane punctuated by suspicion, fading back to mundane.

Is it a good read? Yes, absolutely, and especially if you enjoyed the movie adaptation. Is it a must-read? I don’t think I’d go that far. It’s a bit of a classic at this point, famous in that just about everybody’s heard of it even if they haven’t read or seen the story, but as good as it is, as interesting and enjoyable as I found it, I have to conclude that it’s probably not for everyone. Some of the outdated terminology is bound to make people feel a bit uncomfortable, a lot of the general treatment of Rosemary will do the same (though Rosemary herself is quite a strong woman and I loved watching her fight back when she was pushed too far). This is one of the very few instances where I can say that the movie is as good as the book, and you don’t really miss or gain anything by picking one over the other, so really, if what you’re interested in is the story, pick whichever format appeals to you the most and have at.