PLAYING by Melanie Abrams


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A woman’s sadomasochistic tendencies are traceable to childhood trauma in Abrams’s titillating debut.

Josie is a graduate student studying anthropology. Mary, whose cool, competent air reminds her of her distant mother, hires Josie as a live-in nanny for Tyler, six, and toddler Maddie. Josie is particularly drawn to Tyler—they share a quasi-autistic fascination with counting and tabulating. When Josie encounters Devesh, a surgeon from India, she senses that Devesh is the man she has been hungering for—a dominant male who will help her realize her darkest masochistic sexual fantasies. Soon she’s spending hours at Devesh’s pad being “disciplined”—bound with leather cuffs and whipped with a variety of implements; or “punished” —beaten with less finesse and no concern for her gratification. She’s not bothered by the bruising consequences of acting out her obsession, nor does she care to plumb the psychological truth behind her predilection. It’s only when she entertains fantasies of spanking Tyler and Maddie and comes within hairbrush length of paddling Tyler that she starts to think she may have a problem. Her need for self-analysis is accelerated by her mother’s sudden death. Called to California for the funeral, she’s forced to confront grim realities: Her mother stopped loving her after her infant brother’s crib death when Josie was four, and now it’s too late to rectify or rehabilitate their relationship. She feels unworthy of her father’s love because, as a repressed memory will reveal, she was complicit in the death that eviscerated her family’s happiness. This complicity apparently underlies her perversion of choice. Once she gains this insight and confesses to her father, it’s unclear—and some readers may be disappointed by this facile outcome—whether she’s going to alter her behavior or continue to indulge in it, shame-free.

The detail devoted to the erotic role-playing of Devesh and Josie make it difficult to view them as fully rounded characters or to much care whether they can reform their love along less deviant lines.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-8021-7047-7
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Black Cat/Grove
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2008