I’m going to avoid huge spoilers, but this review might be a tiny bit spoilery. Rosemary’s Baby was first published in 1967 and is one of the most influential horror novels in the genre. I’m assuming that a lot of people already know the general story. I knew the entire plot of the book before I read it.
I wanted to read this novel because I heard that the author had mixed feelings about it. Ira Levin was a huge skeptic of religion and anything supernatural. He’d hoped that Rosemary’s Baby would encourage others to think critically about supernatural claims. Unfortunately, the book had the opposite effect. Levin said that Rosemary’s Baby and its thousands of knock-offs had “helped boost the universal stupidity quotient.” I couldn’t resist a book that supposedly causes mass stupidity.
Rosemary’s Baby is about an actor, Guy Woodhouse, and his wife, Rosemary. They move into a nice apartment in New York City, despite warnings that strange events have happened in the apartment building. Guy quickly becomes friends with the neighbors, but Rosemary is unsettled by how interested the neighbors are in her pregnancy. Soon, Guy’s secretive friendship with the neighbors puts strain on his and Rosemary’s marriage. When Rosemary starts experiencing bizarre pregnancy symptoms, she begins to suspect that something supernatural is interfering with her body. Guy and the neighbors could be behind whatever is happening to her baby.
“Like so many unhappinesses, this one had begun with silence in the place of honest open talk.” - Rosemary’s Baby
First, we have to discuss Guy because he’s the most interesting character. The dude is an asshat, and it’s perfect. He’s so charismatic that he’s easy to like at first, but over the course of the book, you get to see his jerk side. I like the suspense that his character creates because I was never sure how he’d act or what, exactly, was motivating his behavior. He’s a likeable, complicated, horrible, ass.
Guy’s unpredictable character adds some brilliant suspense, but the tension in the novel still builds a little too unevenly for my tastes. The book starts off with a lot of tension, then it slows down in the middle, then it takes off suddenly at the end. I got bored in the middle, and the sudden rise in tension near the end pulled me out of the story.
Basically, near the end of the novel, Rosemary suspects that something strange is going on in her neighbors’ apartment. Her friend gives her a book about witchcraft, and she’s suddenly 100% convinced that the neighbors are witches. Then things get crazy. I had a hard time buying Rosemary’s spontaneous belief in witchcraft. Maybe I was supposed to question Rosemary’s sanity, but I didn’t because she hadn’t shown any signs of being insane earlier in the book. Her sudden certainty of witchcraft feels forced to me.
I also spent a lot of the book questioning Rosemary’s choices. I know that horror protagonists aren’t famous for their impeccable decision-making skills, but I did get frustrated with Rosemary. She lets people push her around. She lets the neighbors pick a doctor for her, even though she already has a doctor she likes. She keeps eating the food the neighbors give her, even though it makes her sick. The woman has no sense of self-preservation.
That being said, I can forgive Rosemary’s bad decisions because they tie in to the most impressive element of this novel. The best part of Rosemary’s Baby is that the “horror” part of the story doesn’t come from the supernatural. The witchcraft isn’t all that scary. Honestly, I found the “witches” kind of ridiculous. The terrifying part of this book is the lack of control that Rosemary has over her own life. She tries to be the perfect wife, the perfect mother, the perfect upper-class New York society woman. She pretends to be something she’s not.
“‘I’d like to have a spice garden some day,’ Rosemary said. ‘Out of the city, of course. If Guy ever gets a movie offer we’re going to grab it and go live in Los Angeles. I’m a country girl at heart.’ - Rosemary’s Baby
She lets her husband and the neighbors cut her off from her friends. She ignores her instincts so that she doesn’t upset anybody. When she finally reaches her breaking point, the people she runs to for help use her for their own gains.
This is far scarier than magical witchcraft because it feels real. Rosemary spends the entire book being controlled and manipulated, but she doesn’t notice until it’s too late.
“Could anyone know when an actor was true and not acting?” - Rosemary’s Baby
Rosemary’s Baby is an older book that does show its age. Some of the ideas are dated, and there are racist undertones, but I think the story sticks around because powerlessness will always be terrifying.