Football, sanity, and sex are the three biggest players on the field in Matthew Quick’s “The Silver Linings Playbook.” Quick tells his tale from the perspective of Pat Peoples, a 34-year-old man who has just been released from a mental institution—or “the bad place,” as he calls it. Written in the style of an extended, journal-like letter to his ex-wife, Pat documents his obsession with her, his slow recovery from mental illness, and the importance of the Philadelphia Eagles football team to his personal relationships.
But though Quick’s first novel is an engaging enough read, it is also a fluffy one. Despite the narrator’s professed desire to better understand himself, his world, and the people who populate it, Quick barely manages to flesh out the main character, let alone the secondary ones.
Quick endows Pat with the voice and writing style of a seventh grader. Pat expresses himself in run-on sentences, and often uses grammatical constructions that one might find in a poorly written grade-school report. One example of this can be found in Pat’s discussion of “The Bell Jar:” “this book excites me because it deals with mental health, a topic I am very interested in learning about.” The sharp contrast between his child-like tone and the adult matters he confronts effectively gives the reader the impression of Pat’s mental instability.
The simplicity of expression reflects an equal simplicity of character. Pat’s dominating outlook on life is that there is a silver lining to everything—a cliché remark that recurs throughout the entire novel. He expects his life to turn out like a movie with a happy ending and is enraged by anything that threatens to prevent this from happening. The happy ending that Pat anticipates is his reuniting with his ex-wife Nikki, although how their relationship ended in the first place remains in the blurry past before his confinement. It is frustratingly clear, however, to both his family and the reader that whatever happened between them, Nikki is not coming back.
Pat’s forthright manner of speech can, at times, border on the offensive, especially when he talks about his friend from the mental institution, whom he always describes as “my black friend Danny.” He frequently uses expressions that, he explains, he learned from “my black friend Danny,” such as “hating on me” and “got nothin’ but love for ya.” The only other person of color who shows up in the novel is Pat’s therapist, Cliff, whom Pat’s brother and friends call a “dot head.” When Pat reveals that he knows Cliff, however, his brother changes his behavior, and the incident is quickly forgotten, if not resolved. The child-like complacency of Pat’s narration only serves to heighten the tension of such comments.
Like Pat’s friend Danny, most of the people who populate the novel are walking clichés. Pat’s father is a man whose emotional state rises and falls with the fate of his favorite football team, while his mother is an underappreciated wife and overworked mother who tries and fails to go on strike in an effort to win her husband’s understanding. Pat’s brother and friends lead lives that fall outside of Pat’s perception; each one blends seamlessly into the next as faceless Eagles fans. While the lifeless secondary characters further demonstrate Pat’s limited understanding of the world around him, they also provide a flat landscape for Quick’s novel.
By fully immersing the reader in Pat’s world, Quick manages to woo the reader to Pat’s side. Although it soon becomes very clear to the reader how (and with whom) the novel will end, there is still a certain amount of pleasure in seeing Pat discover this for himself. Nevertheless, Pat’s clumsy language, simplistic concept of the world, and frequent inability to understand others make him an odd—and ultimately unsatisfying—object for the reader’s sympathy.
—Staff writer Rachel A. Burns can be reached at email@example.com.