Title: Paint Me a Monster
Author: Jane Baskin
Length: 352 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Warning: This review (and novel) contain frank discussions of child abuse, mental illness, and eating disorders.
[4/15 novels in November]
“What would sixteen-year-old Rinnie say to that fear-struck four-year-old girl?”
“I guess I’d kneel down and hug her. And tell her, very softly, that she’s not alone, that I’ll protect her, that I won’t leave her. I’d tell her everyone gets scared and that it’s OK to cry. Crying is a way to call for help.”
Silence. “Rinnie,” Mr. Algrin whispers. “You are that little girl.”
Margo “Rinnie” Gardener is the middle child in an upper-middle-class family living in suburban Cincinnati. She leads a privileged life, growing up in a beautiful house wearing beautiful clothes—but as Rinnie gets older, her fairy tale world turns dark. Her parents divorce, her father drifts further and further away, and her mother takes everything out on Rinnie. As she struggles to cope with her changing reality, Rinnie turns inward until she seizes control of the only thing left in her power: her own body.
It took quite a while for Paint Me a Monster to grow on me, but grow it did.
I picked up this book hungry for another daughter-abused-by-her-mother story. (Where were these YA novels when I was sixteen?) It’s a painful topic that’s close to my heart, one I feel probably happens way more often than anyone wants to admit, but is seldom explored in fiction. I’ve written about my own experiences before.
At first, I was not a fan of Monster‘s simplistic, first-person present-tense style (the book begins when Rinnie is just three years old). I found the dialogue to be trite and unrealistic and almost painfully stilted.
But as the novel goes on and Rinnie grows up, my appreciation grew as well. The whole book is broken up into brief vignettes, most of which are just a page or a few pages long. These become pieces in the puzzle that makes up Rinnie’s life (puzzles are a recurring image in the book, too), all jumbled and unclear either to Rinnie herself or to the reader until she begins piecing them together.
Rinnie is a perfectly ordinary, if somewhat spoiled, young girl who seems to lead a charmed life. But that life begins to crumble until eventually she herself starts to fall apart. Her father’s neglect is obvious from the first, but her mother’s abuse builds up over time until it is too constant and too harmful to ignore. Mothers, it seems, are more apt to emotionally and psychologically manipulate and hurt their children than to physically harm them, and that’s how Mrs. Gardener begins, grooming Rinnie for a life of low self-esteem and self-doubt.
In a store when Rinnie is five:
”I’m hungry,” I say…
“Shh, I can’t think when you whine, Rinnie.” …
I want to hold Mommy’s hand, but it’s lost under the pile of clothes. …
“How much longer, Mommy? I want to go. I’m hungry.”
…She doesn’t feel my tugs on her coat, and when I pinch her ankle, her happy blouse smile is gone. The lines between her eyes frown.
“What is it you want? Can’t you be still for a minute? All these pretty things to look at and you have to misbehave.”
“I want to go. I’m hungry.”
“Then go. Find a place to play over there,” she points. (32)
When Rinnie is about nine:
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“My heart is sad,” she says. …
Water runs into the tub. “You have rabbit eyes, Mommy! They’re pink! A bath will make you feel all better.”
“Oh Rinnie, go away. Life is falling apart in here.” (83)
When Rinnie is fourteen:
“Look, Mom, now you can have your coffee whenever you’re ready. You don’t have to wait for us to get It. There’s sugar and cream and a little napkin, too,” I say.
Here we go.
This isn’t going to work. Mom’s voice follows the back-and-forth rock of her head.
“I’m not ready for my coffee. I’ve only been up ten seconds. And by the time I get ready, the coffee will be cold. I want one of you girls to bring the coffee when I ask and check back fifteen minutes later. If the cup is empty, then it is time for the second cup. What’s so hard about bringing me hot coffee? Two cups please.” (162)
And on it goes, worse and worse until I felt frightened for Rinnie’s safety. One of the worst incidents made me want to fling the book across the room because of the injustice of it all. (It also hit pretty close to home, because my mother sent me to anger management and to a therapist for being “difficult,” too, when she’s the one that really needed those things.) Until she gets to high school, no adults—none with any power, at least—seem to be on Rinnie’s side. Even her grandparents dismiss her stories and say she is “exaggerating” things. By then, though she still seems as happy and normal on the outside as ever, it’s clear to the reader that Rinnie is coming undone at the seams. She fears that revealing the extent of her mother’s abuse would constitute a betrayal, and sadly I empathized with her: being open about your mother’s problems can feel like a betrayal, even when she’s the one who’s betrayed you by taking said problems out on you.
I ended up adoring Rinnie, and I rooted for her all the way. She was quirky, creative, and resilient, even at the worst of times, and she never played the victim. She symbolized hope.
Towards the end of the novel, the Gardeners’ longtime maid, Verna, tells Rinnie that she “was a good little kid.” This butts heads with her mother’s accusation: “You were the bad seed.” Mrs. Gardener filled Rinnie’s head with such doubts over the years: that she was disobedient, bad, “a monster,” a “fat-ass,” a “slut.” But everyone else saw what Verna and the reader saw: “a good little kid” and an athletic, hard-working, studious young woman.
When you hear your whole life from your own mother that you’re nothing but trouble, that you’re a headache, that you make more work for her, it’s difficult to be told (as I have been by other family members) that you were really just a good kid.
It’s difficult to realize that your mother is projecting own fears and doubts and insecurities onto her child, as Rinnie slowly realizes hers is doing.
My heart ached for Rinnie—and, if I’m being honest, for myself.
The book delves into other issues as well, such as the impact divorce has on children and, specifically, eating disorders. It isn’t a light or an easy read, though it is a quick one. I thought it worked quite well as a whole, though perhaps it could have been a bit longer and its ideas, more fully developed.
I would definitely recommend it.