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Something Like a Review: Bedbugs by Ben H. Winters

It’s a good idea to keep your words soft and sweet because you never know when you’ll have to eat them.

This is pretty good advice that many of us forget along the way, especially those who are particularly passionate in our beliefs. I am thankful that since I’ve been reading and writing for this blog and have made a concerted effort to think before I post (most) things, my words are sweet enough to swallow, because that’s what I find myself doing today.

My first exposure to the fiction of Ben H. Winters was through his novel Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Suffice to say that I’m not the right audience for that particular story and I found much more to be enjoyed by Android Karenina. When I was offered a chance to get an advance look at Bedbugs, I was excited. After the initial gross-out and the obligatory itchiness the premise of the story conjures up, “bedbug problem from hell,” it sounded intriguing and I couldn’t wait to dive in.

When I got the book and read through the press release, I was skeptical and worried that it was over-stated. The press release mentioned “loving references to Rosemary’s Baby,” and since I’d just read the story a few months ago, I was leery. Could it really deliver on a promise like that without being corny?

Much to my surprise and delight, the book does live up to the claims in its press release. Not only did I see the urban paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby, but also the deterioration of sanity akin to “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and even a nod to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (but I won’t spoil the surprise of that one).

Winters does a great job utilizing the city-dweller’s inherent suspicion of their neighbors to create an environment of paranoia and capitalizes on the social stigma and related aversion of having a bedbug infestation that only increases as Susan Wendt becomes alienated from those around her, including her husband and child. The story continues to surprise from beginning to end. I had moments where I was certain that I knew what was coming, only to riffle back to see how in the world I had missed the clues that led up to a scene that had me staring at the page in disbelief. Even better, as the book concludes the eerie events aren’t quite comfortably explained and I found myself checking out nocturnal mosquito bites just to make sure there weren’t “breakfast, lunch, and dinner” bites.

With the good, there’s always a counter point, but this one is more a matter of personal taste and may not faze other readers. When I was first starting to delve into writing, I was taught that contemporizing a story by inserting popular brands in the text only served to “date” the story when it’s read by later writers. As a reader, I’ve found this lesson reinforced by the lack of “branding” in stories I’ve considered timeless, and when the “branding” does exist, it breaks my concentration and sends me seeking out what the writer was talking about because I don’t have a modern reference for the name. That being said, the first couple of pages of Bedbugs starts off with an initially irksome list of name-dropping that effectively dates the story in  the early 21st century. While I understand what is implied when the character is using a MacBook to search Craigslist while drinking Brooklyn Lager, I’m not convinced that this could have been conveyed in a more graceful, less dated way. In ten years, give or take, the “contemporary reader” may have an entirely different perception of what that means than today’s audience. The name-dropping frequency diminishes as the story continues, but is significant enough to rub my personal pet peeve raw and may remain unnoticed by most readers.

Overall, Bedbugs left me creeped out and applying lotion to soothe the phantom itching I experienced all the way through it and for days after. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, but I am re-considering my desire to stop off in NYC the next time I head that way. ~shudder~

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