The Silver Linings Playbook: A shared experience and a new perspective. (Book Review)

Recently, I mentioned that I have taken a new stance on what I read for 2014. More than only reading the things that entertain me or the things that enrich my brain, I also want to consider the books my friends love. Often, however, we read strictly for ourselves, and our tastes lock us into narrow worldviews. In doing so, we forget the importance of a shared experience of reading the same book as a friend limit our chances of finding new books that can move us. That’s why when I asked a friend and fellow blogger for a recommendation, I was willing to give her suggestion of The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick a shot.

I had already seen the movie early last year when it had returned to theaters. I really enjoyed it. When I first began the book, I was worried that it would not be different enough from the movie. You can always learn something new the second time around, but I am not terribly fond repeating experiences. Thankfully, the book has its own distinct path. Like the movie, it kept me largely on the edge of my seat, compelled to learn more about the characters. While the movie did resonate with me, the book (especially in the ways it differs from the movie) hit me harder and deeper.

In order to understand why, some background is necessary. As I had discussed in another post, my favorite reviews are those that discuss an experience personally. Objectively, The Silver Linings Playbook was a well-written and compelling character study that was well worth my time. But subjectively, it took me on a personal ride through my own past and experiences with brother who, like the book’s main character, suffered from bipolar disorder.

In The Silver Linings Playbook, the story is told entirely from the point-of-view of Pat, a man now in his early thirties, recently released from an extended stay in a mental hospital. According to Pat, he was a bad husband to his now estranged wife, Nikki, and he desperately wants to reconcile their differences. Though Pat is in denial about how long he spent in the mental hospital, he used his time their becoming physically fit so that Nikki would be proud of him and want him back. As the novel progresses, what transgressed between Pat and Nikki slowly reveals darker truths about both characters, as Pat is forced to reconnect with a world he has largely been absent from.

In line with Pat’s point-of-view, the writing style successfully conveys his troubled mind without betraying readability. There are no chapters. Instead, the book is divided in sections of varying length, often encompassing specific episode’s of Pat’s behavior which stand out the most to him. The text is written in manic, often rambling sentences, which give you a real sense of his desperation to reconnect with a woman who is the center of his entire worldview.

Since Pat is in a state of denial about himself, Nikki, and his time spent in a mental hospital, understanding the full extent of situation, the quality of his relationships with family, and even the depth of his illness all must be constructed by the reader. Other than amazing characters, the main drive for reading through The Silver Linings Playbook resides in its slow drip of information, which leaves each section’s conclusion with the reader wondering, “Can I wait to know more?”

The Silver Linings Playbook hit me deeply because the rambling hopelessness, the episodes of rage, and the often confused worldview that Pat expresses were all similar experiences I noticed when trying to understand my own brother. While their situations were radically different (my brother chose to mix his disorder with more serious drug addictions, while Pat managed to live a fairly normal life), I remember my brother often losing control of himself. He was never violent to the point that I feared for my life or my mother’s life, but at over 6’5″ and 300 lbs he towered over everyone. When he yelled or was angry, you knew it. Given his drug addiction, if he wasn’t actively stealing from a family member, he was hitting up my mother for money, often resulting in loud shouting matches. To my Mother’s credit, she has always been able to hold your own, but when things got heated, I jumped in to try and defuse the situation.

My brother and I had an interesting relationship. Technically, he was my half-brother (my mom’s son from another marriage). Despite being eight years older than me, we were still raised together. We also went to the same private school, which didn’t have separate buildings for the various grade levels. Growing up, our relationship was typical. We fought over control of the tv, argued over how to decorate the Christmas, and typically got into brotherly, physical fights. He always won since he was the athletic type and I was … not. We weren’t especially close, but there was no doubt that we were brothers. Once he began getting more and more into trouble with substance abuse and the law in his late teens, he drifted more and more away from being my ‘big, older brother’ and became my ‘big, older pain in the ass.’

If you are curious where either of our fathers were in this situation, his was somewhere in Florida, thankfully out of my brother’s life (he was bad news). Mine tried to be a parent, at least when my brother was younger, but his own substance abuse with alcohol often made him seem more than a little hypocritical. By the time my brother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his mid-20’s, my father had already made up his mind that his stepson was a burden, a huge drag on my mother, and ultimately someone who needed to be kicked out and left to his own devices. My father loved and supported my brother, but he had no idea how to do either anymore.

That left care of my brother to my mother and I. After a troubled and rather depressing first attempt at living away at school, I eventually moved back home and commuted to college instead. Living at home gave me more opportunities to help. My mother had a lot of trouble getting through to him, especially when all he wanted was ten dollars for the third time that week to spend on “stuff.” In some ways, I managed to become their go-between.

He couldn’t play me the same way as he could her, and eventually he began to respect me for it. I fondly remember him needing to mail a letter (it was probably to some girl he met online – he was always finding broken souls, often to get high with), but he couldn’t drive and no one would take him. The Post Office is maybe a mile and a half from our house, so I told him I would take him, but we would have to walk. Given the amount of drugs he typically took, either legal (bipolar medicine, back pain medicine, sleep apnea medicine, etc.) or otherwise, his health had largely deteriorated, especially with his large frame. I knew he needed exercise and I was tired of him not taking his own initiative.

I apocryphally credit that day with changing our relationship. He respected me more for frequently standing up to him, despite how angry he could get (which was Hulk-angry at times, to be honest). To him, mom was always out to get him so I began trying to calm him down by being more of a friend. I tried to help her see his point-of-view and her his, knowing full well how she felt about things since I was often the only person she spoke to about our shared situation at length. Toward the end, he had taken a serious turn for the worse with more lying, stealing, drug abuse than ever before, but for a brief period, we were closer than we had ever been. I took him to treatments on occasion. I even took him to see Star Wars: Episode III for his birthday and I helped him get into reading Harry Potter since he couldn’t wait any longer for new movies to come out.

At times, our relationship sometimes felt closer to father/son than brothers. Despite the age difference, one of us had to be an adult, and it certainly wasn’t going to be him. I hated it at the time, but looking back, those are the memories I cherish the most. When he died in 2008, I quickly overcame all the ill-will and bad thoughts and focused instead on a really terrible Star Wars movies and his big, goofy smile when I gave him a hint about what happens later on in Harry Potter.

I tell you all of this because every page I turned, my eyes were on the verge of crying. The Silver Linings Playbook wasn’t entirely sad, but its humor was the sort where the laughter comes despite the pain and hardship of everyday living. Due to the sadness though, reading this book gave me an intimate look at how my brother might have thought. It reminded me that my brother’s situation was tragic. As Pat, to some extent, recovers despite his absent father, depressed mother, and the reality of his situation, he slowly begins to overcome it.

My brother thankfully had a few good years, but I would hardly call them the good years of a truly functional adult. Pat’s journey has a silver lining, where as my brother’s often didn’t. I miss him dearly. My mother misses him even more. Given her cancer, in her darkest hours she once told me that it was time her other son got a chance to spend time with her.

It killed me to hear that, but I understood. She has barely been the same person since he died.

Equally important, Pat reminded me that despite the loneliness my brother felt, he was never alone in his condition. There are others like him and other families like my own (and like the one in the novel) that can be bent to breaking over the poor cultural and scientific understanding of mental disorders plaguing society. Characters like Pat’s father in the novel or my own dad represent a certain level of ignorance and a far too common reaction to walk away from mental disorders. That’s a reality we all should be reminded of, whether they affect us directly or not.

I have no idea if this post is still relevant to reviewing The Silver Linings Playbook anymore. But beyond didactic or entertainment qualities, I believe the hobbies we spend our precious time on should often give us reasons to reflect on our own lives and the lives of others. This book accomplished that in spades, and gave me a chance to step outside my own experience. In doing so, The Silver Linings Playbook gave me a greater sense of perspective on my family and, most importantly, my brother.

What more can you ask of a few words on a piece of paper?