It all starts with the radio. Dorothy’s husband, Fred, has left for work, and she is at the kitchen sink washing the dishes, listening to classical music. Suddenly, the music fades out and a soft, close, dreamy voice says, “Don’t worry, Dorothy.”
A couple weeks later, there is a special interruption in regular programming. The announcer warns all listeners of an escaped sea monster. Giant, spotted, and froglike, the beast—who was captured six months earlier by a team of scientists—is said to possess incredible strength and to be considered extremely dangerous.
That afternoon, the seven-foot-tall lizard man walks through Dorothy’s kitchen door. She is frightened at first, but there is something attractive about the monster. The two begin a tender, clandestine affair, and no one, not even Dorothy’s husband or her best friend, seems to notice.
Selected by the British Book Marketing Council as one of the greatest American novels since World War II, Mrs. Caliban is a story of passion and loneliness, love and loss. Wryly subversive, it brilliantly combines surrealism, satire, and the female perspective.
Oh, wow. This is not your average human/monster romance. I totally understand why this landed on the BBMC’s “top 20 American novels of the post-World War II period.”
From the book blurb, this seems straight forward enough: giant, frog-like male humanoid wanders into kitchen of neglected housewife. Bonking commences.
And while, yes, sure, that does actually happen, there is so much more to this story than that. What’s mind-blowing to me is that while most of the reviews that I’ve read for this short novel agree that there’s something surreal and compelling and almost compulsory to it, they don’t do a good job of explaining why.
It’s quite simple, really. Subtext.
You know how in high school your teachers forced you to pour over Catcher in the Rye, and examine every action of Holden Caulfield, and then asked you to explain, in detail, how he was an ingeniously written antihero that shone a light on some of our more problematic beliefs and behaviours, and all the while you were just sat there in front of an empty essay, thinking to yourself that he was just an obnoxious teenage boy and all he shone a light on was how toxic masculinity can be?
This is the book they should have had you analyze instead.
It’s one of the best tongue-in-cheek social satires that I’ve ever read. It delves into gender politics. It takes a long, hard look at mental health. It addresses female sexual freedom and agency. It asks the reader to examine what it means to be human.
Larry, the frog-man love interest, looks like a monster to most. And so is treated monstrously by them. Revealing how monstrous humans can be to anything that is different.
And then there’s that ending. I won’t write too much about it, because spoilers, but suffice to say that when you reach it, you’ll probably set the book down, frown, and then reexamine every word you just read and every action of the protagonist and wonder over the relationship between reality and imagination, all while questioning whether this is a genius work of subliminal metafiction, or if Rachel Ingalls sole intent with this story was to nuke our paper thin social construct of civilization from the orbit.
I still don’t know.
This is going to be one of those books that I think about for a long time after finishing it. And re-read several dozen times over the course of my lifetime in search of more deeper meaning.
The fact that it was written in 1982 and is still SO RELEVANT makes it even more impressive.