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Book Review:The Rules of Survival

The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin
The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin

For Matt and his sisters, life with their cruel, vicious mother is a day-to-day struggle for survival. But then Matt witnesses Murdoch coming to a child's rescue in a convenience store, and for the first time, he feels a glimmer of hope. When, amazingly, Murdoch begins dating Matt's mother, life is suddenly almost good. But the relief lasts only a short time. When Murdoch inevitably breaks up with their mother, Matt knows he needs to take action. But can he call upon his hero? Or will he have to take measures into his own hands? A heart-wrenching portrait of a family in crisis, this is Nancy Werlin's most compulsively readable novel yet.
Book Description from Amazon.com

The story
The Rules of Survival is an intensive and amazing story of Matthew, Callie and Emmy who have an abusive and tyrannical mother called Nikki. Nikki is crazy and uncontrollable with her multiple mood swings, from trying to be a loving mother one day by cooking up a Portuguese Seafood Paella that no one wanted to eat to driving her car into the middle of a lane that has vehicles coming in from the opposite direction the other. The book is written from Matthew's point of view, and it is written in the form of a letter from Matthew to his youngest half sister Emmy, in which Matthew recounts to her their nightmarish days living under the reign of their emotionally-unstable mother Nikki.

Matthew's Rules of Survival
The story tells of how Matthew, Callie and Emmy (who was too young to understand anything) suffered under Nikki for a very long time before Matthew and Callie ran into Murdock in a convenience store one night when they were out to get Popsicle. They witnessed how Murdock stood up for a child who was oppressed by his father, even though Murdock was smaller in size than the other man, Murdock's confidence and calm managed to deal with things perfectly.

Matthew then had an obsession with finding Murdock and then making friends with him, so much so that he went back to the convenience store almost daily to watch out for signs of Murdock's appearance. However, autumn faded into winter and finally spring fell and there was still no sign of Murdock, forcing Matthew to give up hope, until Callie located Murdock by his unique name from the Yellow Pages on the internet. Callie presented Murdock's telephone number and address to Matthew as his belated birthday present, both surprising and delighting him with this piece of information.

However, at this moment, Nikki arrived and picked the paper out from Matthew's hand, assuming that the information and the guy they found was meant for herself. (Editor's note here: I always knew Nikki was a nutball.) She headed down to locate Murdock soon after with Emmy in arms and the two, to my utter disbelief, started dating.

Of course, the period of bliss is not to be as Nikki soon revealed her true natures of being an unstable and mentally unsound parent when she dangled Emmy by her ankle over the crashing waves of the sea. The incident both disturbed and unsettled Murdock and he broke up with her a few days after the incident. This upset Matthew, Callie and Emmy greatly as they all adored Murdock dearly and viewed him as their hero seeing how their life turned for the better after Murdock's appearance.

After Nikki and Murdock's breakup, Nikki took a turn for the worse, from stalking Murdock to harassing him and finally even instigating her new boyfriend Bob to attack Murdock. After many occurrences of such events, Murdock finally had enough when Matthew revealed that Nikki planned to sue Murdock for child molest (claiming that Murdock has molested Matthew) and decided to put a stop to it.

Hence, Murdock, Aunt Bobbie (Nikki's sister who was terrorized by her when they were children), Matthew as well as Matthew and Callie's father, Ben, worked together to note the unusual behavior of Nikki such that they could turn her in to the police at every chance they have. This worked well because Murdock placed a restraining order against Nikki, who seems somewhat determined to undermine the order.

The climax for me was when Nikki kidnapped Emmy who was then in elementary school and forced her to drink all kinds of alcoholic products such as beer and Bourbon, causing her to throw up and get sick. Matthew came to Emmy's rescue, and he was so mad at Nikki's scandalous deeds that her apparently beat her up and would have killed her if not for Murdock's timely appearance. I especially like how Murdock treated Nikki like the vermin she is, making no move to answer her question as Nikki tried to cling onto him and question why he was stealing her children from her.

The story ended almost peacefully, but Nikki was sentenced too lightly when she and Julie (Murdock's friend, neighbor, and pretend-girlfriend in front of Nikki) got into a planned car accident caused by Nikki, causing Julie to be paralyzed from waist down. She can never walk again.

The story ends with Matthew telling Emmy to take care, as he confessed his small guilt that he was relieved in a way that the person that was hurt was Julie instead of anyone in his family or even Murdock, but knowing that Julie was totally unrelated and an outsider in this happening made him guilty that she bore the brunt of the worst happenings.

I think the book is an amazing read of how the teamwork between siblings and adults can actually help to rescue the children from the oppression and abuse of their crazed parents. It is touching to see how Matthew and Callie are really mature and united in their actions to keep Emmy safe from harm, and to keep themselves as obscure as possible in front of Nikki. On the other hand, I found Emmy the least likeable character of all, she seems to be a selfish and spoilt brat who is used to others (mainly Callie and Matthew) caring for her such that she throws tantrums and hits people as she likes. When I was reading the story, I was so repulsed by her self-centeredness and childish tantrums that I am inclined to whack her across her head if she were to be my sister. But then again, she is a very well-crafted character and her tantrums and her bold and unrestrained character is not only a shadow of what Nikki is like but also a result of the care and love Callie and Matthew have given her.

I feel that while Nikki is vile, she is actually a very well-crafted and solid character that is easy to imagine. Her high-strung character and her alcohol-driven crazed coupled with her signature eyeliner all made her a very impressionable character to remember. She is cunning and vindictive, and cruel in her own way of stalking and leaving messages that "had nothing but sound of breathing".

"Your mother at thirty-five was the same lying, self-absorbed, vindictive, underhanded, treacherous, mean girl she was at sixteen, when she used to torture me all the time."
~Aunt Bobbie

In a way, Nikki reminds me vaguely of Bellatrix Lestrange, from their crazy maniacal laughter to her eyelined eyes. They are characters that are extremely mood-swingy and crafted for us to detest them without any reservations.

As for Murdock, Ben and Aunt Bobbie, I like Murdock the most, followed by Aunt Bobbie then Ben. In the case of Ben, I do hold some grudge against him for not coming to the aid of the children fast enough to get them out of their misery, his actions and words to me feel cowardly and what I would call "burying his head in the sand" to turn a blind eye against all the hardships that the children are going through. Hence I was finally relieved when he summoned enough courage to come on board to fight for the rights of his children.

Overall, I would give this book a five out of five because it is well-crafted, suitably paced in its roller-coaster of emotions and has just the right amount of excitement to keep me turning page after page. I think it is a truly great read that opens our eyes to the extreme forms of parenting, or rather, the most failed forms of parenting there is.

If you enjoyed reading books like Ugly by Constance Briscoe and A Child called It by Dave Pelzer but cringed at the extreme abuse that these children are subjected to, The Rules of Survival will be just right for you with its slight dash of child abuse that are not as scary as the ones in the aforementioned two.


  1. Child abuse stories are packed with a kick in the heart for me, but glad you enjoyed the book :) New follower.

    Momo @ Where the Mome Raths Outgrabe

    1. Thanks for the nice comment! Following back! :)


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