Meet the Devohrs: Zee, a Marxist literary scholar who detests her parents’ wealth but nevertheless finds herself living in their carriage house; Gracie, her mother, who claims she can tell your lot in life by looking at your teeth; and Bruce, her step-father, stockpiling supplies for the Y2K apocalypse and perpetually late for his tee time. Then there’s Violet Devohr, Zee’s great-grandmother, who they say took her own life somewhere in the vast house, and whose massive oil portrait still hangs in the dining room.
Violet’s portrait was known to terrify the artists who resided at the house from the 1920s to the 1950s, when it served as the Laurelfield Arts Colony—and this is exactly the period Zee’s husband, Doug, is interested in. An out-of-work academic whose only hope of a future position is securing a book deal, Doug is stalled on his biography of the poet Edwin Parfitt, once in residence at the colony. All he needs to get the book back on track—besides some motivation and self-esteem—is access to the colony records, rotting away in the attic for decades. But when Doug begins to poke around where he shouldn’t, he finds Gracie guards the files with a strange ferocity, raising questions about what she might be hiding. The secrets of the hundred-year house would turn everything Doug and Zee think they know about her family on its head—that is, if they were to ever uncover them.
In this brilliantly conceived, ambitious, and deeply rewarding novel, Rebecca Makkai unfolds a generational saga in reverse, leading the reader back in time on a literary scavenger hunt as we seek to uncover the truth about these strange people and this mysterious house. With intelligence and humor, a daring narrative approach, and a lovingly satirical voice, Rebecca Makkai has crafted an unforgettable novel about family, fate and the incredible surprises life can offer.
So earlier this week I mentioned going through my occasional need to take a break. I last finished/reviewed a book on 5/31. I took a few days off; tried to read something on my ARC pile, which for various reasons I would up DNF’ing as well, so decided that it was time to instead to find something that would qualify as a “Palate cleanser” reviewer, as I still fully believe that one of the best ways to help move ahead is to read something you don’t normally. So I thought that The Hundred-Year House, a piece of literary fiction, would be perfect.
And for the first 50%, it was.
I really enjoyed the first half of this book. It was a great story of marriages falling apart, secrets kept from spouses, and a mystery of why Zee’s mother was so damn opposed to Doug trying to get a handful of seemingly innocent files from the attic. But then we got an answer. We didn’t know if it was the truthful answer, but we had our answer and the story wrapped up with a literal 50% of the story left. This is where the book lost me, because now we start journeying to the past. First we go back to 1955 – and skimming ahead confirms we then go back to the 20s and the final section, titled “prologue” is set in 1900 (Part 1, the section which is described above is set mainly in 1999, with the denouement occurring in 2000). The idea here is that one parts introduces characters from the past, and then the next section covers the story of those characters. I had two problems with this. First, I liked that part 1 ended without knowing for sure whether or not the story we’d been given was true. I didn’t actually have a desire to know the truth. Second, the characters in the second part just didn’t grab me. Zee and Doug were very flawed characters, I rather enjoyed that about. When we go back in time and meet Grace and George, they don’t feel as complex and so it just lost me.
Ultimately, I just don’t understand the decision to tell this story in this way. Rather, let me clarify: on a technical level, I understand it: the author wants us to meet the people before we meet them. But I’m still not convinced its necessary. The past wasn’t really what was interesting in this book. The fact that Zee was trying to set up another professor to get fired to try and get her husband a job was interesting. Doug ghostwriting a Babysitter Club-type novel to bring in a few bucks, but hiding it from his wife because he was embarrassed was interesting. Honestly, the stuff about the artist colony was the least interesting bit.
Oh well. I do think the first half is worth a read, but I just can’t recommend only half a book.
On to the next 🙂