Books Jacket Copy

'The Hundred-Year House' a juicy, gothic tale of art and love

Rebecca Makkai's 'The Hundred-Year House,' set in a former artists colony, is tailored for book geeks
In Rebecca Makkai's new novel 'The Hundred-Year House,' getting what you want is often dangerous
A Marxist literary scholar and a ghostwriter live in an estate full of secrets in 'The Hundred-Year House'

"The Hundred Year House" is a big-hearted gothic novel, an intergenerational mystery, a story of heartbreak and a romance, all crammed into one grand Midwestern estate. Laurelfield, as it's called, has gone from family home to artist colony and back again. The people who stay there tend to end up haunting it, or being haunted by it, or both.

"I feel this place is going to swallow me whole," one poet complains, only to soon decide, "this is exactly where I ought to be, of anywhere in the world. I think I had hold of the place by the wrong end."

The book begins in 1999 with Zee and Doug, a young academic couple, moving into Laurelfield's carriage house. A Marxist literary scholar, Zee doesn't like to admit that she belongs there: She is a member of the rich Devohr family, the estate's owners. Her mother, Gracie, lives in the big house but is so imperious that her daughter and son-in-law set foot there only when invited.

Once the home of artists, the house under Gracie's command reeks of wealthy eccentricity, with an out-of-control standard poodle, an off-limits attic and a Republican second husband who loves rum and golf. Yet it can't quite escape the Devohrs' characteristic "scandal, Diaspora, insanity": Zee's great-grandmother Violet, memorialized in an unsettling portrait, died by her own hand there. And later, Gracie was banished there with her first husband, and her family has never visited, not once.

This is the stuff of tragedy, but Zee and Doug are too wrapped up in their own issues to notice. She is ambitious and focused, securing a job teaching at the local university, while he remains stalled on a monograph about an obscure poet. To make money, he finds a job ghost-writing "Sweet Valley High"-style books for teen girls, with proscribed plots and a bible that explains who carries what kind of purse and has what allergies. Ashamed, he hides the gig from his wife. Not surprisingly, the secret does their relationship no good. When her stepbrother and his wife move in next door, Zee becomes convinced that Doug is falling for the wife.

The novel is tailored for book geeks, from its writers residency setting to its characters and more. The poet Doug is writing about — not well remembered, gay and who committed suicide — is clearly modeled on Hart Crane. Rebecca Makkai brings the story to an emotional peak during a thunderstorm and winks at English majors when one character explains, "In the English department, this is what we would call objective correlative."

From Zee and Doug's time, the book jumps back to two shorter sections set in 1955 and 1929, followed by a brief flash of the estate's founding. Each section adopts a different narrative style. The estate is begun in 1900 with antique language; in 1929, the prose comes in fragments, sometimes subjective, other times written artifacts; 1999 is a mystery told in short chapters that almost mirror the YA books Doug is writing.

That mystery, which Doug pursues with his step-sister-in-law, surrounds the obscure poet whose story he can't quite tell. There are many unanswered questions about the poet's life, and because he stayed several times at Laurelfield, Doug is convinced that if he could look at the artist colony's papers, they would hold the key. But they're locked in the forbidden attic.

Through an impossible plan, they get to the attic and find documents that raise many more questions about the house and its history. Particularly vexing are the contents of the poet's file: a single mysterious photograph. What it means is one thread that ties together the sections of the book.

Another connection is Zee's mother, who narrates the story in 1955. She is newly wed and arrogant but beginning to regret her choice of a bad boy for a husband; his turbulence can be brutal. In a quiet moment, she thinks, "This is what she'd pictured them looking like when she first settled on George: together in the bedroom before the dinner hour, George happy and energized, Grace with bare feet and a book. Only she hadn't imagined feeling like a ball of lead."

No matter the era, getting what you want at Laurelfield is often dangerous, ending in a torpedoed career, a marriage destroyed and worse. Yet those who would deny their passions also face ruin. It is the place, it seems, that is pushing desires to extremes.

In this literary but unpretentious book, Makkai has created a juicy and moving story of art and love and the luck it takes for either to last.

Twitter: @paperhaus

The Hundred-Year House
A Novel

Rebecca Makkai
Viking: 352 pp., $26.95

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • A grave new world awaits in Edan Lepucki's 'California'
    A grave new world awaits in Edan Lepucki's 'California'

    In Edan Lepucki's debut novel, "California," young married couple Frida and Cal must navigate a post-apocalyptic landscape in a broken-down near-future. Lepucki focuses on the complexities of basic human emotions, testing allegiances and letting secrets unravel even the most steadfast of...

  • Novelist Tania James talks rogue elephants, India and conservation
    Novelist Tania James talks rogue elephants, India and conservation

    A rogue elephant named the Gravedigger is the main narrator of "The Tusk That Did the Damage" (Alfred A. Knopf: 240 pp., $24.95), Tania James' imaginative novel exploring the ivory trade in the forests of south India. Orphaned at birth by a poacher, the Gravedigger seeks revenge for his...

  • Hanif Kureishi's 'The Last Word' lacks a certain sense of voice
    Hanif Kureishi's 'The Last Word' lacks a certain sense of voice

    Hanif Kureishi's "The Last Word" suffers from the genius problem: To create a believable virtuoso, the character's brilliance must light up the page. Such an issue arises any time an author tries to write about such a figure: J.D. Salinger, whose weakest effort, the novella "Hapworth 16, 1924,"...

  • Trying to make sense of the world of ubiquitous surveillance
    Trying to make sense of the world of ubiquitous surveillance

    Airports are exemplars of our surveillance society. Here a raft of digital surveillance, targeting and sorting systems come together. And they start working well before you arrive for check-in, with the U.S. government comparing your name against watch lists as soon as you buy a ticket.

  • India bans 'Fifty Shades of Grey' film, but the book's a hit there
    India bans 'Fifty Shades of Grey' film, but the book's a hit there

    Indian censors have decided the movie "Fifty Shades of Grey" is too sexy to be released there. Don't tell them the book is on their bestseller lists.

  • Dennis Lehane drinks in some sunlight
    Dennis Lehane drinks in some sunlight

    Dennis Lehane is one of Boston's best-known writers. Born and raised in the community of Dorchester (or, as he would pronounce it, "Dorchestah"), he's got a Bostonian no-nonsense, tough-guy edge, and his books, including "Mystic River" and the six-book Kenzie-Gennaro mystery series, are set...

  • Indie spotlight: Pushkin Press
    Indie spotlight: Pushkin Press

    When Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel" won Oscars for its costumes, makeup, score and production design, it swept something else along in its winning tide: Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. The long-deceased author, who wrote in German, penned the personal stories that were the film's...

  • Elizabeth McCracken wins the Story Prize
    Elizabeth McCracken wins the Story Prize

    Elizabeth McCracken is the recipient of the $20,000 Story Prize for her collection “Thunderstruck.” McCracken was awarded the short-fiction prize Wednesday night at a ceremony in New York.