Tuesday, November 03, 2015


The Hundred Year House, Rebecca Makkai, Viking Penguin, 2014, 335 pp
Summary from Goodreads: 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.

The Hundred-Year House 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.
My review:
The more I read, the more I see that there are infinite ways to tell a story. Why shouldn't it be so? I like the variety and that only gets broader as I read more translated books and more novels written by women.
I first heard of Rebecca Makkai when she published her first novel, The Borrower, in 2011, a book about libraries, librarians, and a geeky kid who reads compulsively. All the negative stupid reader reviews I read only made me want to read it, but alas it has languished on my huge TBR list. Now I will! Because:
The Hundred Year House was so good! The eponymous house has been in the hands of one family for a century. During the Depression it was rented out to an artist's colony. That was all I needed to know. Favorite sub-genre of mine: Artist Colony/Utopian Community fiction.
The story is told (brilliantly in my opinion) by moving backward. It starts in 1999, on the eve of Y2K, with an unstable couple. Zee, a Marxist scholar and professor, and her husband Doug, out of work in the academic world and way overdue on publishing the book that could save his career. Reading Part One, you realize that both of these people are hapless in their own unique ways but Zee is also a bit whacked. Of course, it turns out she has good reason to be.
Part One is half of the book, written in a contemporary style appropriate to hapless 21st century characters and maybe it did go on a bit too long and did have me scratching my head. It was entertaining in a John Irving kind of way but not that impressive. However, though I am a slacker in many areas of life, I am not one as a reader. I read on.
Man, was I rewarded. It makes you realize the truth behind cutting weird people some slack because you don't always know what they have been through before you met them. 
In Parts Two and Three we learn what Zee has been through, why her mother is so very odd, how a portrait of an ancestor in the house makes bad things happen and is suspected to contain a ghost, but most of all what it means to a group of artists to create a community and how far they will go to preserve it.
In my usual, mostly unsuccessful practice to get my reading group members to read outside their own boxes, I pitched this, got it read by one of these groups, and was shamed by how much vitriol they exuded-toward the book, not me. (It is a thing in reading groups. You never blame the person who suggested the book, maybe because she is sitting right there and it is easier to pick on the poor absent author.)
Most of the people in this group are lawyers. I think The Hundred Year House is meant for artists and those who love artists. Or at least for people who don't need everything in life and in books to be wrapped up in neat packages with no rough edges, no "inexplanities," all mysteries solved and culprits punished.
(The Hundred Year House is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


  1. Sounds like a concept of an Isabel Allende's novel (not one in particular, I mean the ensemble of characters).
    BTW, I feel so bad when someone doesn't like my recommendations; it feels like I am intellectually challenged.

    1. Thanks Carmen. I want to read that new Allende novel, now! I keep telling myself that taste and intellect are quite different things.

    2. I know about the new Allende's novel. It will have to wait because I don't want to pay full price for it. There's lots of buzz surrounding it.

    3. I know. I entered a giveaway. We'll see what happens.

  2. Too bad about the lawyers vitriol. Did they really not like it? You got me a bit curious about The Borrower. She sounds like an interesting author. hmm

    1. They really did not. They went on and on. But she is a unique author, I think.