Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Hundred-Year House, by Rebecca Makkai

For the first few chapters, I thought The Hundred-Year House was going to be a humorous novel about a young couple who can't quite get it together. Doug and Zee are living in the carriage house of her mother Grace's mansion. Both are academics, but Doug doesn't have a job. Instead, he is supposedly working on a book about the poet Edwin Parfitt, who at stayed at the mansion decades ago when it was an artists' colony. In reality, however, Doug is picking up some much-needed cash by writing books for a series  aimed at middle school girls and scheming as to how he can get into the mansion's attic to access the files from the colony--both activities unknown to Zee. Meanwhile, Zee's stepfather Bruce is stockpiling supplies for the disaster he anticipates when Y2K hits, and he invites his son Case and daughter-in-law Miriam to live in the second carriage house apartment because Case is also out of work.

Then the book takes a turn for the dark. Zee launches a scheme of her own to open up a teaching job for Doug at the university where she teaches by planting pornography on a colleague's computer. Case endures a series of accidents as soon as he arrives at the estate. His wife Miriam, a mosaicist, is affected by the ghost of Zee's great-grandmother Violet, a longstanding myth of the property. Miriam and Doug become increasingly close, hatching a plot to make an assault on the attic archive. The characters go from amusingly directionless to alarmingly unmoored. Yet, when things come to a head, the outcome is not as bad as I feared--and we're only half way into the book.

The second half starts a generation earlier, in 1955, when Grace was newly married to her first husband, George. In successively shorter sections, we get a glimpse of two even earlier time periods--shortly after World War I when the artists' colony was hosting Edwin Parfitt and in 1900 (coyly ending the book with a section "Prologue") when the ghostly Violet is being brought to the mansion to part her from her lover in the family's home base of Toronto. Each of these sections uncovers secrets and reinventions that would have stunned Doug and Zee had they understood the history underlying Doug's research and Zee's life.

Makkai has a gift for creating characters who at first appear to be eccentric and then show the less endearing side of that eccentricity (remember the librarian in The Borrower?); unfortunately, some of the characters then become close to caricature. The backward chronology she employs in this novel works as a way of conveying the theme of reinvention--after all, if you aren't who you think you are, why not reinvent yourself?  But by the end, I found myself expecting the twists before they came--perhaps there are a few too many. Overall, I'd give The Hundred-Year House a mixed review--some interesting characters, an innovative structure, a compelling theme, but it doesn't quite come together.

Favorite passage
By then there had been other men. She'd flung herself at other closed windows. The windows never broke, but her heart, at the end, was in splinters.

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