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Set in the bohemian Greenwich Village of the 1970s, Dylan Landis, winner of a 2014 O. Henry Prize (for "Trust," a section of this novel) weaves a powerful story of girlhood, friendship, and sexuality.
Fourteen-year-old Rainey Royal lives with her father, a jazz musician with a cultish personality, in a once-elegant, now-decaying brownstone. Her mother has abandoned the family, and Rainey fends off advances from her father’s best friend while trying desperately to nurture her own...
Set in the bohemian Greenwich Village of the 1970s, Dylan Landis, winner of a 2014 O. Henry Prize (for "Trust," a section of this novel) weaves a powerful story of girlhood, friendship, and sexuality.
Fourteen-year-old Rainey Royal lives with her father, a jazz musician with a cultish personality, in a once-elegant, now-decaying brownstone. Her mother has abandoned the family, and Rainey fends off advances from her father’s best friend while trying desperately to nurture her own creative drives and build a substitute family. She’s a rebel, even a criminal, but she’s also deeply vulnerable, fighting to figure out how to put back in place the boundaries her life has knocked down, and more than that, struggling to learn how to be an artist and a person in a broken world.
Rainey Royal is told in 14 narratives of scarred and aching beauty that build into a fiercely powerful novel: the harrowing and ultimately affirming story of a young artist.
A New York Times Editors' Choice
"Dylan Landis’s captivating and unnerving novel Rainey Royal, set in Manhattan of the 1970s and early ’80s, is not a thriller, but it smolders with these loaded questions: How far will an adolescent girl go to gain a sense of belonging; and how can her unaimed sexual power put others, and herself, at risk?"
—Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times
"[Rainey is] achingly vulnerable and cruelly intimidating . . . that in-your-face mix of fear and fearlessness, carnality, control and powerlessness that is what it sometimes takes to survive as a female in America . . . But Landis never lets you forget who the true victim is. In a world where the adults behave at best like wrinkled spoiled children and at worst like criminals, there's no one more lost and vulnerable than this raging, magnificent, abandoned little girl, who manages by persistence to grow up."
—The New York Times Book Review
"Dylan Landis's Rainey Royal is like its heroine: fierce, winning, and sharp as a blade."
"Rainey Royal is the empowering story of an abandoned fourteen-year-old girl desperately trying to find herself, as an individual and an artist. [Rainey is a] vulnerable, criminal rebel."
"Rainey will remain in my mind forever as one of my favorite characters."
"Might make you cringe—whether you were the kind of girl who had a ball thrown at your face during gym or the kind of threw it . . . As Rainey moves into young adulthood, her sexuality becomes so complicated, it's like a second character in the book. There is power there, she learns, but it's the power of electricity with faulty wiring; lights aglow; the house in flames."
"Wild, dangerous, sometimes certain and other times totally lost, Rainey is a fascinating, unique character . . . The young women, even as lifelong friends, seem to be in a constantly shifting battle for power; under the surface it often is connected to secrets and knowledge."
—Los Angeles Times
"It's difficult to remember a novel that was more continually on edge than Rainey Royal, a series of fraught moments that never seem to let off any psychic steam . . . so taut, the scenes so emotionally charged, that the breaks in the action are welcome . . . beautifully drawn."
"Fiery, daring, unforgettable . . . Landis knows bad girls—how their minds work, how they are made, and why they are broken. Best of all, she knows how to make you love them—which you can’t help but do as you follow Rainey Royal, the title character, through her 1970s Greenwich Village girlhood. Rainey is dangerous, but her struggles are timeless, and Landis writes about her with prose so elegant and crystalline that as you read, you have to remind yourself to breathe."
—Natalie Baszile, author of Queen Sugar, for the San Francisco Chronicle
"Transporting, sensual and musical by turns, appropriately enough for a book about sex and jazz."
"Landis creates a vivid fictive universe . . . every battle, every transgression is minutely observed . . . line by line, one of the smartest and most exacting prose stylists we have."
"[Rainey Royal is] always pushing the moment further, even when part of her feels like backing down, and the result is a story that feels dangerous—as though something might break at any moment."
—The Daily Beast
"Hard to handle, Rainey thinks. That’s what they say when they talk about me.” The book isn’t hard to handle—it’s a fast read that consumes the reader from beginning to end—but Rainey’s experiences are. Landis takes the time to turn Rainey inside out, revealing the dark underbelly of female adolescence."
"[Rainey, Leah, and Tina] psychologically torment one another but remain inseparable, and exude cool that masks their vulnerability. Landis depicts a 1970s New York City that is a permissive playground and menacing nightmare."
"Tremendous . . . Landis offers a bold alternative of which I hope we see more and more: the novel as feat of compression . . . Crisp, beautiful, often hilarious."
"Stark and fascinating . . . unforgettable . . . The hundreds of little tragedies painted across the page will leave readers deeply affected as Landis perfectly captures a time period of mad exploration during which lines blurred for young people trying to find themselves."
"Blew me away . . . an amazing character."
—Daniel Chacón, Words on a Wire, KTEP
"[Rainey Royal] deals in short, sharp shocks . . . [with] a language of the imaginative and beating heart . . . [Landis] weaves spells."
"Rainey Royal is a story about loss and recovery by any means necessary . . . It is a brave book, a provocative book, a book that invites re-reading and discussions as intense as the world it portrays."
"Rainey Royal is a tough novel with a tender heart . . . Dylan Landis is an author to be watched."
—New York Journal of Books
"Brilliant, delicate writing . . . a solid choice for literary fiction readers; it also will be appreciated by those who are interested in narratives that depict the bohemian lifestyle."
"A mesmerizing portrait of a teenager in 1970s Greenwich Village. Rainey Royal's life is wantonly glamorous, degenerate, sophisticated . . . [Landis] has created a kind of scandalous beauty in her tale of the simultaneously fierce and vulnerable Rainey."
“Beautiful, richly drawn characters will pull readers into this emotionally charged story and keep them clinging to every lyrical word. Landis’s captivating first novel is a ringing tribute to friendship, autonomy, and artistic presence.”
"Complex . . . a rich, sometimes challenging portrait of young women doing their best to grow."
"Prose is a fine art in the hands of Dylan Landis . . . Rainey Royal is yet another example of her lapidary fiction and her unsettling imagination."
"Every woman has known a Rainey Royal. The coolest girl in school, the most daring, the most beautiful, yet the one who could turn on you—and then, bewilderingly, turn back. What makes a Rainey Royal, and her effect on everyone she encounters—that chaos of yearning, cruelty, woundedness, seeking, and human poetry—we needed a great writer to show us, and here she is. Dylan Landis has written a spare, elegant novel that's pure nerves, pure adrenaline. Should carry a warning, do not read at bedtime."
—Janet Fitch, #1 New York Times bestselling author of White Oleander and Paint It Black
"There is a line in Dylan Landis’s lush, fierce, and stunning novel Rainey Royal, that perfectly captures this book’s intense beauty. 'Rainey feels half like a butterfly has landed on her wrist and half like a knife is angled to her neck.' Rainey Royal is a chronicle of girlhood as a dangerous, delicate thing. There is edge and tenderness and longing to be found here. Always, though, Landis’s words are a butterfly and a knife both cutting you open in necessary ways."
—Roxane Gay, author of An Untamed State
"Rainey is infinitely alluring . . . a hard-to-love girl who you can’t help but take deeply into your heart and carry around as if she were someone you once knew and adored."
—Jessica Anya Blau, author of The Wonder Bread Summer
"In this book Dylan Landis creates an unsung heroine. Rainey has been orphaned by two living parents. She and her friends have been left to their own resources. They are falling angels, Manhattan rich girls starting out in the 1970s stumbling their way through a pastel city where there will never be any serious consequences to their mischief, or even to their treachery against each other. Landis’s gorgeous, off-handedly elegant style caught me from the first page. I didn’t so much read Rainey Royal as I was hypnotized by it."
—Carol Anshaw, New York Times bestselling author of Carry the One
“Beautiful, brutal, mesmerizing, Rainey Royal draws you in from the first, breathtaking sentence and doesn’t let you go. Few novels have affected me as this one did. Reminiscent, at times, of Mary Gaitskill and Lorrie Moore, this is a novel—and a character—for the ages, a wholly original and singular piece of work. Unforgettable, indelible. Read it now.”
—Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year
"Dylan Landis is a writer of exceptional rigor and finesse. Every page of Rainey Royal is incandescent—practically ablaze—with the beauty and chaos of adolescence, heartache, art and New York City. I don’t know how she does it, but I hope she never stops."
—Justin Taylor, author of Flings
"Rainey Royal gets under your skin, pushes you out of your comfort zone, and takes you to a truer, more frightening place. Dylan Landis captures the innocence and cruelty of teenage girls in flamey, jewel-like sentences that hover on the edge of rapture: read these stories with your heart in your throat."
—Ellis Avery, author of The Last Nude
“One need only consider some of the ingredients of this flammable dessert of a novel—art, jazz, sex, cigs, saints and miracles and dangerous modern school girls without parental brakes—to know that Rainey Royal, Dylan Landis’s terrifically entertaining novel, is not just for adults. Younger readers will be equally smitten with Rainey Royal, a hardier, funnier successor to Holden Caulfield.”
—Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends
“Do not pick up Dylan Landis’s fire-hearted novel if you have any need for sleep, because this intense, passionate ride though turbulent girlhood will not let go of your throat until you have followed Rainey, Tina and Leah to the complex end. Evocative of literary coming-of-age classics like Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, yet with the modern edge of Lena Dunham’s Girls, Rainey Royal explores the underbelly of art, glamour, jazz, sainthood, magnetism, the 1970s, sex, and what it means to burn.”
—Gina Frangello, author of A Life in Men
"Rainey Royal is the most exquisite combination of tender and terrifying, of girls who walk delicate and angry balances between their love for each other and their need for survival, of a New York not vanished but remembered here in all brownstone and hot streets and threads of music, of young women navigating love and the selfish desires which are not love."
—Susan Straight, author of Between Heaven and Here
“Dylan Landis knows how to unnerve a reader, even as she's appreciating being unnerved. Rainey Royal thrums with sex and power. A brave, exquisite book.”
—Mary Kay Zuravleff, author of Man Alive!
"In the stunning debut novel, Rainey Royal, Dylan Landis introduces us to girls who play games, girls who play with fire, and girls who distrust each other, drawing them into a friendship so profoundly real, it feels as if she knows our secrets. For those of us who were once these girls, and for those of us who were once afraid of these girls, this story unleashes memory both unnerving and thrilling. Deeply human. Surprisingly tender. Pure poetry."
—Susan Henderson, author of Up From the Blue
Praise for Normal People Don't Live Like This
“Wonderful! Leah and Helen are authentic, vulnerable characters, whose intimate truths are exposed at perfect, unexpected moments.”
—Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge
“The characters in Dylan Landis's debut story collection, Normal People Don't Live Like This, are blessedly extraordinary.”
—Elissa Schappell for Vanity Fair
“Watch [Landis] very carefully. Once you can create characters like Leah (or Angeline, Rainey and Helen), there's no stopping you.”
—Los Angeles Times
“The tales in this bravura work are timeless: They could easily belong to our daughters’ generation instead of our own.”
“[A] lean, beguiling novel in stories . . . Elegantly written.”
“Some delicious writing . . . Buy this for your literary fiction readers and short story fans."
Sunday, when Rainey comes home from the museum, Howard summons her to the Steinway with a wave. No one puts anything on Howard’s piano: no ashtrays, no sheet music, no beer bottles, no rosin, no Harmon or wolf or Buzz-Wow mutes, no toilet-paper hash pipes, no framed family photos because it’s never been that kind of house. Fantastic sound is thumping through the parlor, with a heavy backbeat that Rainey likes. She stares down Flynn, who flushes and studies his fingering. He spends a lot of time waiting his turn. He reminds her of one of those long-legged birds that take delicate steps with backward-hinged knees. When Howard finally stops playing, Gordy lowers his horn, the snare stops clicking, and finally the winter draperies, which have stood through two summers in mournful dark red columns since Lala’s departure, suck up the last of the sound. The room is half empty, not everyone plays every time, and Rainey has no idea if there’s a schedule. Far beneath the jazz she hears the rattling of the air conditioner, which Howard hates, but he has to keep the windows closed for the neighbors and stop by nine at night.
Some of the acolytes stare at her with fascinated and hungry eyes, for she has constant access to Howard Royal, and she is as untouchable to them as a veiled novice.
Rainey opens her arms and rotates slowly. “‘Come to the dance singing of love,’” she says, and feels her powers grow. “‘Let her come dancing all afire.’” It was in the book, and now it is in the folds of her burning brain. She does not know what she is trying to provoke. She wants to prove she is protected.
Gordy laughs aloud. The laugh says, You are beautiful when you are nuts. Her father says, warningly, “Rainey.” She turns on him a gaze like a shield. Who knew she had a shield in her head and a saint in her pack?
“I hope you cleared your perpetually messy floor. I promised the cellists you’d share. A few days, Daughter.” The electric violinist, Gemma, shivers visibly as if the room has chilled. Everyone knows the cellists could double up with other acolytes. “Be generous,” says Howard softly. He would resemble Christ, Rainey thinks, if his beard did not receive the trimmer and the comb—a weekly father-daughter ritual he taught her young and that she could live without.
“So,” she says tightly, “I’ll just go up and move my shit.”
Rainey turns away as the flautist, Radmila, plays a patter of high notes. It’s water, dropping leaf to leaf through the rainforest canopy: Rainey can see it. Don’t try to understand jazz, Gordy said once: You are jazz. A few times he has whispered, You’re awake, aren’t you? She keeps faking sleep, as if she has left West Tenth and gone far away. Is she saving herself or is she moldering?
Howard’s musicians start touching their instruments again. Rainey, stranded, takes the stairs alone to her pink shell of a room.
It’s too late.
The cello-shaped chick and her friend, kneeling at the bureau, are dropping her clothes piece by piece into two piles on the rug. Keepers, she realizes, and rejects. “The fuck you are,” says Rainey, and slams her fist into the open door.
They raise their porcelain faces. “We’re just borrowing.” The friend holds up a T-shirt that Rainey doctored with grommets and lace inserts. “This is gorgeous. He said we could share the room, so we figured . . .” Behind her, two cellos bask on the bed.
Rainey stalks in and grabs a cello by the throat. “You want to put that shit back?”
When she and Tina talk like this in the girls’ room at school they can make anyone do anything. But these girls are older. They gaze at her, waiting to see what she has in mind for the hostage cello. Rainey jerks it hard. The instruments knock together and hum, and the girls clamber to their feet.
“Clothes and whatever else you stole,” says Rainey. “Are those my earrings?”
Miss Cello works at her earlobes. “Please, may I have my cello?”
“Oh, are we at please now?” says Rainey, buoyed. “If I let it go, will you leave the house?”
Miss Cello tugs a key from her pocket and turns it triumphantly in the air. “Howard Royal gave me this.”
“Cello,” Rainey reminds her.
Miss Cello only pretends to know joy on this earth: Rainey can feel it. Miss Cello keeps her gaze on the ground, on filthy stars of chewing-gum foil and bottle-cap planets. Whereas Cath, dead and in the soil for eighteen days, looked at the earth particles all around her and was awed by every turning molecule.
Rainey drags the cello off the Linda-quilt. It makes a scratching sound across the buttons and thumps to the rug. The first girl lunges for it, and Rainey draws back her foot and says, “I’ll kick it. I really don’t care.” She’s only wearing Converse, but the girls freeze in the frosted cupcake that is Rainey’s room. “You can have it in the morning,” she says, “if you don’t steal anything else.” Of course, they have already stolen everything.
She drags her prize into Gordy’s room, pulls it inside, closes the door, and considers. Then she looks back out in the hall. Miss Cello is darting down the stairs, and her friend leans out from the doorway of the pink room.
“You should know that Howard does not give a fuck,” says Rainey.
“Seems like Howard doesn’t give a fuck about his daughter, either,” says the friend.
Rainey picks up a yellow ceramic ashtray from Gordy’s bureau and hurls it. The girl ducks and laughs. The ashtray hits the doorframe and falls without breaking. Miss Cello bolts back upstairs. “That bitch,” she says, and spots Rainey. Her eyes fill.
“I can’t go to school without my cello,” she says. “Why are you doing this?” If she got centered in that body of hers, she could be a totally different chick. Move like this, Rainey wants to tell her, and you could have men aching to draw a bow across your hips. But Miss Cello doesn’t want power. She wants to feel safe. Rainey sees through the eyes of Cath that she will never be an artist.
“Howard says give it back or get out.” The girl rubs her hands together frantically.
Rainey gazes at her till Miss Cello’s face contorts through several changes of expression. Give it back, or get out—this has to be a lie; Howard has no time for the settling of squabbles. Her mother got out; she sloughed off West Tenth Street to find God on the ashram in Boulder, Colorado. Lala descended the stairs weeping, in the arms of two ambulance men. But Rainey will hold fast to her pink room the way Boston ivy grips the sills outside the garden windows.
Heavy footsteps begin an ascent. Gordy’s white-blond head bobs into view. “Raineleh,” says Gordy. He picks up his ashtray, sits on the top step, and stares at her through the spindles, ignoring the cellists. “Are you being a little troublemaker?”
“No.” Rainey wheels around and locks herself in Gordy’s bedroom with the cello. “I’m fucking things up majorly,” she yells through the door.
Sometimes she comes to the dance singing of love, and sometimes she is deep in the dangerous worldly state. She is not sure which would be accurate now. When Tina asked Gordy, What do you like? it seemed like a good question. Rainey likes rubbing silver against clay until clay turns to pewter: alchemy.
Gordy’s room smells like socks. Outside his windows, a tree flips its leaves to their metallic backs. On the floor, the cello lies naked and bright.
Rainey drags it onto the unmade bed. She takes off the diamond ring her mother gave her, the one that belonged to Linda’s mother. She settles herself and with the diamond begins scratching an image into the instrument’s back. In the hall, people knock and test the doorknob. Safe in the room, Rainey is making art. Through the windows, the sky bruises. Around her, honey-colored dust sifts onto the unwashed sheets.
Five minutes pass, an hour, she has no idea. Voices rise, and she ignores them.
When the door flies open, it slams the corner of Gordy’s bureau so that everything on top jitters. Howard, large in the doorway, does not look so Christ-like now. “If you don’t release that goddamn cello, Daughter,” he says, “you can get thee to a nunnery for all I care.”
Rainey slips her ring back on, grabs Gordy’s penknife off his night table, and stands on the bed. The cello stands with her. It is her spruce-and-maple mother. It is her saint against temptation, though she can’t resist testing her hold on the pink room.
Watching Howard, she opens the penknife, slides it against the fingerboard, and slits the thickest string. It snaps with a wiry groan. What was the other thing Tina asked that night? Her father crosses the threshold with an angry stride. She is scared, but his anger feels better than when he smiles her up and down. She steps behind the cello but looks him in the eye.
“Does it hurt yet?” she says.
Posted September 12, 2014
A startling and powerful novel in stories. Everyone has known someone like Rainey in their life. You may hate her or love her, but you can't help but be fascinated. A hip, young, 70s New York version of "Olive Kitteridge."Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.