In the Dream House

Bluebeard’s greatest lie was that there was only one rule: the newest wife could do anything she wanted—anything—as long as she didn’t do that (single, ordinary) thing; didn’t stick that tiny, inconsequential key into that tiny, inconsequential lock.

But was all know that was just the beginning, a test. She failed (and lived to tell the tale, as I have), but even if she’d passed, even if she’d listened, there would have been some other request, a little larger, a little stranger—and if she’d kept going—kept allowing herself to be trained, like a corset fanatic pinching her waist smaller and smaller—there’d have been a scene where Bluebeard danced around with the rotting corpses of his past wives clasped in his arms, and the newest wife would have sat there mutely, swallowing the egg of vomit that bobbed behind her breastbone.

In her memoir about an abusive relationship with a former girlfriend, Carmen Maria Machado draws on the imagery of fairy tales, as well as other genres, to show how her own supposed fairy tale in her supposed dream house fell apart.

Each short chapter (sometimes just a paragraph, rarely more than a page or two) looks at the dream house from a different angle. Dream House as Picaresque, as Daydream, as Lesson Learned, as Love Lucy, as Pop Single, as Choose Your Own Adventure. And so Machado proceeds in a roughly chronological order to chronicle how her own Bluebeard tested her again and again, creating a tense balance of happiness and terror that makes it impossible for Machado to leave. She also considers how abuse in lesbian relationships has been depicted in pop culture and in actual court cases.

The fragmented style worked well to keep this book from feeling like an unrelenting misery, and it does so without seeming to minimize the darkness in the actual relationship. The device provides a framework, a way to understand. Machado seems especially interested in fairy tales, and she notes throughout the book when some sort of fairy tale image or device (falling in love with person never seen, sickness or weakness for breaking taboo, ghost moans, flood from tears) appears in her own story. Abuse runs through all sorts of stories, and all sorts of stories can be wrapped inside an experience of abuse. And it doesn’t always seem clear when you’re on the inside.

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