“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.
The Hundred-Year House
Viking: 352 pp., $26.95