Tag Archives: The Hundred-year House

Six Degrees of Separation – from Tales of the City to The Book of Salt #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.Cover images

 

 

This month we’re starting with Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, the first in a series of books beginning in the ‘70s about a group of young people – some gay, some straight – and their adventures living on Barbary Lane in San Francisco under the wing of the wonderful Mrs Madrigal, just the kind of landlady you’d want. I’ve read the whole series many times. It’s a joyous treat although it becomes darker as AIDs rears its ugly head. It was Tales of the City that made me determined to go to San Francisco which I did in 1995.

Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room also played a part in my holiday plans when we went on our central European railway jaunt a couple of years ago. It’s about the construction of very beautiful modernist house in the Czech Republic town of Brno, and the families who live in it.

Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-year House also tells the story of a house and its inhabitants, working backwards through its century long history. I enjoyed it but not as much as Makkai’s debut The Borrower which is about a librarian and a little boy she takes on the run.

Hard to imagine Sophie Divry’s slightly waspish librarian in The Library of Unrequited Love extending her hand to a ten-year-old. When she finds a young man who has been locked in overnight she treats him to a passionate soliloquy about her colleagues, the Dewey Decimal system and bookish conspiracies while unwittingly spilling the beans about her yearning for a young researcher.

Divry is also the author of Madame Bovary of the Suburbs, a tribute to a much-loved classic as is Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, a modern take on Pride and Prejudice. I’ve yet to read it but given the acute observation and acerbic wit on show in her recent short story collection You Think It, I’ll Say It, I’m sure she’s a fitting writer to take on the task.

Sittenfeld wrote American Wife based loosely on Laura Bush. Amy Bloom’s White Houses also features an American First Lady telling the story of Eleanor Roosevelt’s affair with Hick, a journalist who came to live in the White House, giving up her job as a Washington reporter.

Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt is also about a lesbian relationship between two historical characters, this time Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Troung tells her story through the voice of their Vietnamese cook who regales us with descriptions of the delectable food he serves to them in their Parisian apartment.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from San Francisco in the ‘70s to Paris in the ‘30s. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in July 2015

Cover imageI’ve read all but two of July’s selection of paperbacks and reviewed four of them which makes this an easy post for me. I’ll start with one I haven’t read but have been eagerly anticipating: Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and before you castigate me for that missing ‘u’, that’s the way it’s spelt on the jacket. All four of the eponymous Tsukuru’s schoolfriends’ names have a colour in them: he is the odd one out. After they all turn their backs on him he fails to connect with anyone until he meets Sara. As ever with Murakami, I’m sure there’s much more to it than that.

Josh Emmons’ debut, The Loss of Leon Meed, has largely earned its place here because it comes from The Friday Project whose books are always worth a look rather than its seemingly ubiquitous Jonathan Franzen recommendation. Popping up inexplicably and in the strangest of situations, Leon Meed brings together ten disparate residents of Eureka, California, previously unknown to each other, each of whom has witnessed his appearances and each of whom wants to share their experiences. ‘A canny status report on the American Soul’, according to the Los Angeles Times.

I’ve read but not reviewed Katherine Hill’s The Violet Hour in which Abe throws himself overboard after confronting Cassandra with her infidelity leaving her and her teenage daughter aboard their pilotless yacht. Theirs was an apparently perfect marriage, a fulfilment of the American dream, but Hill’s novel goes on to reveal otherwise. A classy summer read – just the thing for lazing around which is why I took it on my own holiday then failed to get around to reading it.

Niven Govinden’s All the Days and Nights is also a portrait of a relationship which is not quiteAll the Days and Nights what it seems. Narrated by Anna Brown, a celebrated portrait painter, it begins with a cry of anguish at the disappearance of John – husband, lover and the subject of many of her paintings. Anna has told her housekeeper that John is merely in town picking up art supplies but she knows that this is no short absence. Slowly – sometimes in vibrant word pictures, sometimes obliquely – a picture of John and the life they have lived together emerges through Anna’s memories and imaginings. It’s a short novel that repays attentive reading.

Much longer, unsurprisingly given its name, The Hundred-Year House is Rebecca Makkai’s backward looking history of Laurelfield which we first enter as a family home, albeit a somewhat dysfunctional family. You may know Makkai’s name from her lovely, engaging first novel, The Borrower, the story of a librarian who goes on the run with her favourite customer, a ten-year-old boy whose Evangelical mother is worried about his sexuality. Her second is entirely different, but just as entertaining.

As is Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party which had me absorbed from start to finish. It’s a novel about a particular generation, my own, and many of her characters are all too recognisable. This is the second novel in which Grant puts the baby-boomers under the microscope. The first, the hugely enjoyable We Had it So Good, is about the first wave who matured in the 1960s rather than us tail-enders. Upstairs at the Party has some familiar Grant hallmarks – young Jewish girl rebelling against her mother, a much-loved uncle figure, an attention to clothes – and is also a thoroughly absorbing, if darker, read. Hard to untangle my own enjoyment from nostalgia but if you’ve liked Grant’s other novels, I think you’ll enjoy this one, too.

Cover imageMy final choice is Emily Gould’s Friendship which didn’t seem to me to get as much attention as it deserved in hardback. We talk about relationship breakups but not the breakup of a friendship although they can be almost as heartbreaking, and in some cases more so. Gould’s novel makes no bones about its subject – it’s obvious from the title – but it’s about much more than that. Through the lens of Bev and Amy’s friendship she examines what it’s like to emerge from your twenties in the modern world, still unsure of what to do with your life.

That’s it for July paperbacks. A click on the title of the three books I haven’t reviewed will take you to Waterstone’s website for a fuller synopsis. If you want to see what I’ve picked out in hardback for July you can find part one here and part two here.

The Hundred-year House by Rebecca Makkai: A backward kind of history

Cover imageI don’t think I’ve read a book in which the prologue is at the back before and in case you’re thinking of correcting me – it isn’t an epilogue. Rebecca Makkai’s novel is a backward looking history of Laurelfield which we first enter as a family home, albeit a somewhat dysfunctional family. You may know Makkai’s name from her lovely, engaging first novel, The Borrower, the story of a librarian who goes on the run with her favourite customer, a ten-year-old boy whose Evangelical mother is worried about his sexuality. Her second is entirely different, but just as entertaining.

The Hundred-year House opens in 1999 with Zee and Doug renovating the gatehouse of the estate owned by her mother Grace. Neither of them particularly wants to live with her parents but finances are precarious and for Doug there’s the added lure of the Laurelfield artists’ colony where Edwin Parfitt, the subject of his thesis, once lived. When Bruce’s son loses his job, he and his wife Miriam become unwelcome guests at the gatehouse. Zee is convinced that Doug will fall in love with Miriam but he’s busy writing pre-teen fiction when he should be working on his Parfitt monograph. Meanwhile, Bruce is ordering supplies for his Y2K apocalypse obsession (remember that?) and his son seems to be succumbing to the fabled supernatural powers of the house, watched over by the portrait of Zee’s ancestor the beautiful Violet who supposedly haunts the place. Fast forward, or rather backward, to 1955 and Grace is a young woman married to George, a womanising drunkard with an eye for the servants. Grace finds a surprising ally in Max, their chauffeur and general factotum, who seems to know the house so well it’s as if he’s always lived there. Back we go again to 1929, when the eight artists who make up the colony are awaiting the owner’s son, convinced that he plans to shut it down. Together they hatch an ingenious plan and secure a twenty-five year tenure, breaking a few hearts along the way. Finally, we end up at the prologue and the very beginning of Laurelfield.

Each of the novel’s sections is very different. The first, and by far the longest, has an almost farcical tone at times with its cross-purpose misunderstandings and occasional slapstick humour but there’s a wonderfully unexpected twist, further unravelled in the next, much more sombre section which in turn sets up more questions to be answered in the third. Satisfyingly, the significance of small, seemingly trivial details – a small jade statue, the mystery of a photograph, Zee’s name – become a little clearer each time history is wound back. It’s a very clever structure – hard work to keep it all straight while writing it, I imagine, but it works. The ghost motif running through all three sections was a little strained for me but even that has its point as the story coalesces. It’s one of those novels that the more you think about it the more accomplished it seems.