READING: “The Hundred Year House” by Rebecca Makkai

The Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai, Viking, $26.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0525-42668-4

hundred year houseThat Laurelfield, a house, was the title character of Rebecca Makkai’s second novel – a tale which I had read described variously as a ghost story, a gothic, reminiscent of I Capture the Castle –  was what hooked me. I am an old house person who grew up in a crumbling estate by which I am still haunted, obsessed by the history and secrets and lies and seductions of its many rooms and the disappeared and lost branches of family who once there populated.

Ms. Makkai’s book – while full of cleverly composed prose and mordant character insight – is not, however, a ghost story or gothic, and neither does the title residence play as much of a role as an old house fanatic (and you either are one or you’re not; I have repeatedly chosen to live in crumbling, poorly plumbed, leaky roofed, barely heated, disintegrating homes over newer constructed, dry-walled boxes without history) would like.

This is not criticism, but an alert. I went into the novel expecting from reviews that it would be something else, and that it was not that, disappointed me and was a hurdle I had to overcome to enjoy the many qualities it did have. First, the precis from Ms. Makkai’s website:

A haunted family and a haunted house… in reverse.

When Doug’s mother-in-law offers up the coach house at Laurelfield, her hundred-year-old estate north of Chicago, Doug and his wife Zee accept. Doug is fascinated by the house’s previous life as an artists’ colony, and hopes to find something archival there about the poet Edwin Parfitt, who was in residence at Laurelfield in the twenties (and whose work happens to be Doug’s area of scholarship). When he learns that there are file cabinets full of colony materials in the attic, Doug is anxious to get to work and save his career—but his mother-in-law refuses him access. With help from friends, Doug finally does access the Parfitt file—only to find far stranger and more disturbing material than he bargained for.

Doug may never learn all the house’s secrets, but the reader does, as the narrative zips back in time from 1999 to 1955 and 1929. We see the autumn right after the colony’s demise, when its newlywed owners are more at the mercy of the place’s lingering staff than they could imagine; and we see it as a bustling artists’ community fighting for survival in the last, heady days of the 1920s.

Through it all, the residents of Laurelfield are both plagued and blessed by the strange legacy of Laurelfield’s original owners: extraordinary luck, whether good or bad.

Ms. Makkai is stunningly adept as literary constructionist, tricking out her multi-generational odyssey with enough mystery, romance, intrigue, and machinations of characters who are richly multi-layered (and sometimes with multiple identities) to keep the reader fascinated, hurtling backward through time to the beginnings of Laurelfield. Along the way the reader is treated with sometimes breathtakingly penetrating insights into humanity. For example, this from the first section:

As she sped to town she developed the leaden sensation, though, that she hadn’t just been right in her fears, but had actually caused something, yet again, to happen. That she’d willed this into being as surely as she’d brought about Cole’s implicit confessions. She was getting everything she wanted, but also – like in a nightmare, where you’re the author and also the victim – she was getting everything she feared: Miriam’s crush, Doug’s ineptitude, even the appearance of that stupid dress. She thought, “I need to be careful what I fear next.” And then she thought: “What I fear next is madness. What I fear next is madness. What I fear next is madness.”

Or, this from a later (thus, earlier) section:

Grace felt Amy’s pain in her own stomach, she did. It was a convulsion, like holding back a sob. But all she could think to do was make it worse, as if that would solve everything. She imagined this was how a killer felt, halfway through the job. Finish stabbing the fellow, so there was no one left to feel it. She said, “Here’s what you don’t know yet: So often in life, you get exactly what you look for. If you want a George, you’ll get a George. The worst thing I could wish for you is everything you want.”

These passages are both beautiful. Read them aloud. Their rhythm alone is stunning, aside from the ways in which they echo one another, just a small part of the ways in which those who populate the house make one after another discovery while making art, while making love, while making life inside its walls, all the while searching for the perfect image for their mosaics, their poem, their reality.

Ms. Makkai’s writing is witty, darkly so, and she makes the difficult perspective changes and juggling of unreliable narrators and many emotional streams, echoes, and reflections seem effortless. She masters metaphor and symbolism and … well … this is a book writers and lovers of literature’s intricacies will find full of treasures. Like Doug in the narrative, one will want to break into its attic, discover its secrets.

My small and curmudgeonly, peckish old-reader cavil; for me (and like I said, I’m a grouch who lusts after old homes and the gothic) when it was all over, I was less drawn in by the emotion and the story than I was admiring of the authorial acumen and technical maneuvering – and I salute her gifts – but I would have like less machination and more heart.

I purchased Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred Year House at my local, independent bookstore, The Curious Iguana [CLICK HERE], which is not just a bookstore, but, a community where I am welcomed, known, and appreciated. Get to know your local bookseller – or MINE!

 

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