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The Pillow Friend
Lisa Tuttle
Bantam Spectra, 335 pages

Lisa Tuttle
Lisa Tuttle grew up in Texas, where, as a young writer, she fell in with the notorious Turkey City gang. She sold her first short stories in the early 1970s, and received the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1974. After five years as a newspaper journalist in Austin, she opted out of a life of financial security to write fiction full-time. In 1981 she moved to London. Her first novel, Windhaven, was written in collaboration with George R.R. Martin. This was followed by Familiar Spirit (1983), Gabriel (1987), Lost Futures (1992) and The Pillow Friend (1996), as well as by three short story collections. Lisa Tuttle is also the author of several non-fiction works, most notably The Encyclopedia of Feminism (1986), and a number of books for children, including Panther in Argyll (1996) and Mad House (1998). She now lives in a remote part of western Scotland with her family.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Mysteries
SF Site Review: Ghosts and Other Lovers
Lisa Tuttle Tribute Site
Bio/Bibliography: 1, 2, 3 Book reviews:

Upcoming limited edition of Ghosts and Other Lovers from Sarob Press
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alma A. Hromic

The Pillow Friend Sometimes books can be deeply unsettling. A book like this one kind of haunts you afterwards, not always in a good way -- it's fantasy in its subject matter but gritty literary realism in so many other ways and occasionally the two rub up against one another, for me, in a way that leaves me vaguely upset and ill at ease, questioning the nature of reality and fantasy and the borderline between them, questioning the validity of fantasy and whether it is a good thing at all or just a cauldron of uncontrollable dreams and wish fulfillment which does nobody any good at all.

Lisa Tuttle's protagonist is a girl called Agnes Grey, with a family that includes a shadowy father, a mother who is at best frustrated and neurotic and at worst psychotic... and then things get rarefied, fast. Agnes has an aunt, her mother's twin sister... or does she? She falls in love with a classmate in high school and they become lovers... or do they? She falls in love with a faded newspaper picture and an idealised image of a minor English poet and then meets the real one, in the flesh... or does she? (Well, she does, but not the first time you think she does...) She falls pregnant... or does she? She has the baby... or does she? Is she living one schizophrenic life in our own world, or is she living a half-dozen fantasy lives on a number of different planes?

What is real? What is not? What is important?

Things in Agnes's life are sometimes the stories that she makes up and writes and sells as children's fantasy. Her "real" life is fraught and unsatisfying, full of unrealised expectations; relationships either unconsummated or, when consummated, shatteringly disappointing; frustration, helplessness and fear. This is a story of someone who apparently has the power to make her dreams and wishes come true -- and yes, they do always have a price tag attached, that is the golden rule, but one would have liked to have seen a little bit of reciprocal value in the life that the protagonist winds up leading. There is just so much... unhappiness here. And the only happiness seems to exist when Agnes basically retreats from our reality and drifts into some nebulous dream state of her own -- this is the only sphere where her emotional and sexual needs are met, the only sphere where her eventual pregnancy is real, the only sphere where she actually has her baby and is allowed to love it.

"[Agnes] knew she must be dreaming...[...] Why did people speak so dismissively of dreams, as if they were unimportant? She had been trying to find her way back to this dream for all her waking life." So Tuttle concludes her book, with her protagonist rocking a phantom babe in her arms. It is meant, perhaps to elicit empathy -- but in me it merely provokes pity, and an unintentional look around for potential professional help. It isn't that dreams are unimportant -- far from it! -- but it's just that living a halfway decent life does involve making your peace with your reality as well as your dreams, and Agnes Grey has apparently abdicated her attempts to do that. People who do this in real life wind up surrounded by soft-spoken staff in white coats, and lifelong regimens of antidepressants. Every dream has its price, sure -- but Agnes Grey, in this book, has paid too high a price for hers.

I like Lisa Tuttle's work, I like the way she writes, but this book leaves me feeling a little like I've looked a little too closely at what lies behind the closed doors of the asylum. I can't say I am left liking that impression. And I can't really say that leaving a book with nothing but a sense of pity and a vague relief that I am out of someone's orbit is a good place for a protagonist of any story to be left at the book's conclusion. It isn't even that I hated the book -- it's more a sense of being awfully glad when it was over and I could put it aside. I tend to keep, in my permanent collection, books that I can see myself returning to read again -- The Pillow Friend, alas, doesn't make that cut.

Copyright © 2006 Alma A. Hromic

Alma A. Hromic, addicted (in random order) to coffee, chocolate and books, has a constant and chronic problem of "too many books, not enough bookshelves." When not collecting more books and avidly reading them (with a cup of coffee at hand), she keeps busy writing her own. Her international success, The Secrets of Jin Shei, has been translated into ten languages worldwide, and its follow-up, Embers of Heaven, is coming out in 2006. She is also the author of the fantasy duology The Hidden Queen and Changer of Days, and is currently working on a new YA trilogy to be released in the winter of 2006.

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