Silver Linings Playbook
by Matthew Quick
Sarah Crichton Books

Want to keep me from buying a book? Write “heartwarming” and “enchanting” on the cover. Want me to buy your book even if you do? Put a photograph of an unshaved, blue-eyed Bradley Cooper there as well.

I picked up Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick not because of its feel-good promises, but because I wanted to see the movie and I try to live by that idiotic rule that states one must read the book first even if it’s highly likely that the book and the movie have as much in common as broccoli and syphilis, which is why I think books should never be made into movies (even though I always fall for it, but that’s an argument for a different day). Anyway, I was in Target and there was Bradley Cooper wearing nothing but a 20% off sticker. What else could I do? Bradley Cooper is legit, like, the Sexiest Man in the World. Or on Earth. Or in People magazine.

But that’s where the fun ends.

The character with an abiding love for title-worthy silver linings is Pat Peoples. Pat is in “the bad place,” an institution for people with every shade of mental disability, when his mother arrives, out of the blue, to retrieve him. He’s deeply in love with his wife Nikki, to whom he plans to return as soon as “apart time” is over. He has a black friend at the bad place who teaches him innocuous street talk even though Pat is a grown-ass man from Jersey. He despises Kenny G (very relatable). His mother is a crier. His father is a jerk.

Armed with optimism, Pat begins his new life at home with hope- the kind of blind, unadulterated hope only children and drunks possess. He works tirelessly to reshape his mind and body for his reunion with Nikki. This includes hours-long workouts, running while wearing a garbage bag, and a thorough reading of Honors English 12 classics. (His rant on Hemingway is righteous.) He works tirelessly to please his mother by dressing nicely and taking his meds. He works tirelessly to create any kind of communicative dynamic with his father including taking up pompoms to cheer, tirelessly, for the Philadelphia Eagles. He engages in complicated relationships with a new therapist, his old best friend, his brother, and Tiffany, a young widow with “problems.” Pat makes me really tired.

He survives all this by pretending (well, actually believing) his life is a movie, playing out toward his well-deserved, happy ending. It even has a soundtrack! Heartwarming, right? Totally enchanting.

I love to read for information. I love to pick and scratch at word choice and sequencing and pace and try to get inside the writer’s head. I love a good story, but I am equally interested in what’s under the story. There’s a literary agent out there, Donald Maass, with a website dedicated to writing the next big breakout novel. There you will find 58 prompts for making your book more interesting, more dramatic, more every-damn-thing. Almost all of these prompts suggest you take whatever ails your protagonist and make their circumstances three times worse. Matthew Quick is so from the Donald Maass school of 3x Worse.

It’s not obvious at first, as Pat meets challenge after challenge and for the most part is successful, even when that success is based on his ability to ignore the problem at hand because, you know, when God closes a door, silver linings, and all that. His delusion is contagious; you have to cheer for the guy. But, then the seams start to split a little. Information leaks out. Big questions arise. Does Pat have major anger management issues. Is that why he was in the bad place to begin with? Why the fuck does he keep calling it “the bad place”? And what’s up with “apart time”? This dude talks like a first grader sometimes. Did they give him shock treatments? Do they still give people shock treatments? Wait a minute, he was a teacher? This math is really fuzzy.

Pat goes toe-to-toe with everything life throws at him, silver lining blazing out ahead of him like a beckoning neon sign, and all the while dread builds up like hangover vomit in my throat.

I grew to wish the book would just end, put poor Pat Peoples out of his damn misery (even though he’s seemingly unaware that he should be miserable).  Let him kill himself. Please, let him get hit by a PATCO train. Mugged? Please, let them be armed. Aim for the heart! Alas, Pat does not find the easy end of a noose or a .38 Special. Instead he’s insulted, manipulated, lied to, used, and emotionally abused by the people who care about him. The people who don’t care beat his ass, watch him suffer, and walk away. Worst of all, he’s coerced to perform a modern dance extravaganza to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” “Total Eclipse of the freaking Heart.” This poor bastard.

Then it gets worse. So much worse. Just-fucking-kill-me-3x-worse.

Happy ending? Unhappy ending? Happy enough ending? That’s up to the reader, but it’s also one of the most arresting aspects of  this book. Matthew Quick doesn’t tell you how to feel about the way things turn out for Pat. There’s no guide for judging the gains and losses, winners and losers. There’s just Pat and all the things you learn about him and those around him as he tells his story. Good luck with that.

I was also fascinated by the way Quick built frustration and angst through Pat’s self-discovery. I never really felt I had my hands around what was going on with him until the very end and it drove me positively mad throughout, which is probably the whole point. Well played, Quick.

Engaging read, but I’m still pissed about the cover.

“Heartwarming” and “Enchanting.” Pfffft. If that’s your thing, maybe you should just see the movie. If anyone can make traumatic brain injury and mental illness adorable, it’s probably Bradley Cooper.