The Rules of Dreaming is a very unique book. It has one of the most complex stories I have read in years, with equally important narratives from half a dozen primary characters. The amount of action and introspection from the primary characters makes keeping track of everything a bit laborious, but well worth the effort. The esoteric nature of arguing the merits of different schools of psychology and complex literary theory make for a recondite mental workout — If you’re looking for a light cozy mystery, this isn’t it.
Much of the story revolves around the interpretation of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffman (the 1951 version of which can be found online from a variety of movie archives if you’re interested). I can’t claim familiarity with the story, but the frequent references to the opera’s history almost make me want to watch it. Almost. Watching opera to me is the same as watching foreign television without English captioning. Robert Schumann’s piano composition Kreisleriana is also featured in the story.
I realize that none of this is likely to attract the average reader to this wonderful story, so for the sake of Mr. Hartman, I’ve posted a rather simplistic review to the book’s page on relevant sites. That review looks like this:
Dubin, an unscrupulous detective-turned-blackmailer, finds himself outside the Palmer Institute in northern New York. He’s investigating the apparent suicide of Maria Morgan, a local opera singer and the wife of a wealthy landowner, some seven years ago. His motive isn’t necessarily to find the truth.
Ned Hoffman, a psychiatrist who is new to the institute, is charged with the care of Hunter and Antonia Morgan, twin siblings and progeny of Maria and Avery Morgan. He’s concerned that the treatment they are receiving may not be in their best interest.
Each begins to question the same series of events from seven years before, trying to determine what really happened to Maria, and why Hunter and Antonia are in the institute. They soon learn that there’s more to Maria’s suicide and her children’s descent into madness than meets the eye.
In The Rules of Dreaming, Hartman uses a diverse cast of characters to tell a chilling tale of power, corruption, greed, and consequences. Each character is so well defined that it is often difficult to tell whose narrative is the most important to the story. Hartman’s seamless blend of first and third person narration keeps the mystery at the fore, while always leaving more questions than answers. From the first page to the last, I found myself reading at a frenzied pace to unravel the mystery. The moment I reached the words ‘the end’, I immediately wanted to read it again to look for hidden clues. The Rules of Dreaming is unquestionably the most engrossing mystery story I’ve read in years!
One thing that I should also admit is that I didn’t technically read this story. I purchased both the Audible and Kindle versions and tried out Immersion Reading. Basically I read the story while also listening to it being professionally narrated by Neal Arango. I feel this is an important distinction to make because, if I’m being honest, I don’t think I could have followed the story without reading it this way. I’m over twenty years out of school and haven’t read anything nearly this abstruse in nearly the same amount of time… I really think it would have been well out of my comprehension range without the characters each having a unique, audible, voice to help me differentiate them. Of course that’s more about my personal failings than it is about the book.
That’s about as far as I can go without discussing the plot directly.
The story begins with the following:
All right, Dr. Klein, you can turn that thing on now. I’m ready to tell my story. But first you have to understand, I’m not who you think I am.
The genius of Mr. Hartman’s writing is that he was able to make the -very bold- move of opening the story with a huge reveal and somehow still make it a surprise at the end. Even while fully aware that Ned Hoffman’s narrative came with the caveat ‘I’m not who you think I am’, I was still surprised by the outcome. In my case, I think I was being a bit too clever for my own good by guessing the ending early on and not wavering despite the facts. Facts which, I might add, Mr. Hartman intentionally bolstered in support of my theory along the way. I thought I was picking up on very subtle clues -the ones which were expertly hidden so that only the most accomplished armchair sleuths could uncover them- but it seems they were left like flagstones on the beach for me to trip over. But my brain, that shady bastard, kept me thinking I was always one step ahead. While most stories have that one “A-ha!” moment, for me The Rules of Dreaming had one “Goddammit!” moment instead -when I realized that Mr. Hartman had used my own inflated ego to rook me. Well played, Mr. Hartman.
There are many other things I’d like to comment on in this story: the psychology, being a character in someone else’s story, why a doctor has a full puppet theater with marionettes of all the characters… But to do so would be wasting valuable time which could be spent reading the book for yourself. So go buy it already!