How to Build a House
Wendy Lamb Books: 228 pp., $15.99
“How to Build a House” isn’t really about how to build a house, though a house does get built over the course of this new young adult novel from Los Angeles author Dana Reinhardt. “How to Build a House” is really the story of 18-year-old Harper Evans as she comes to terms with her father’s divorce from her stepmom and the emotional devastation that has been wrought.
The book opens with Harper in flight -- literally, on an airplane. She is headed for Bailey, Tenn. The small Southern town has been struck by a tornado, leaving the place looking “like toys knocked over by one gigantic, clumsy toddler.” Harper is headed to Bailey not only because she’s an altruist but also because distance breeds perspective. Or so she hopes. Like the tornado that struck out of nowhere, her parents’ seemingly happy marriage disintegrated without warning, leaving Harper estranged from her stepsister/best friend and the only mom she has ever known. Now she’s trying to figure out why it happened.
Written with a light touch that belies the heavy subjects of divorce and blended-family dynamics, “How to Build a House” is also well-paced. It’s divided into seven large chapters that are broken down into smaller pieces that volley between past and present, or, as Reinhardt refers to them, “home” (meaning L.A.) and “here” ( Tennessee). “Here” refers to the Homes From the Heart program where Harper volunteers and to the handful of teens she meets. All of them hail from different places, both geo- and psycho-graphically, which provides for some interesting group dynamics and, because this is a book for teens, romantic pairings.
It’s a much-needed fresh start for the book’s well-spoken, witty young protagonist, who learns she is still lovable in spite of what’s going on at home. The most significant relationship Harper forms is with Teddy. He’s the 19-year-old for whom Harper and the other volunteers are building the house, and the teen with whom Harper becomes romantically involved. A local of mixed race, Teddy has a loving and intact family, but that doesn’t mean the dynamics are any easier than they were for Harper’s dad and stepmom. They’re just different -- more external than internal.
It took a tornado -- blowing the roofs off the homes of postcard-perfect Bailey -- to reveal the town’s racist underbelly, the point being that every person, every family and every town has issues. It’s how you perceive and deal with those issues that’s important. It’s through picking up the pieces of Bailey and building a house that Harper begins to understand. When something is broken, it can be pieced back together. It may look and feel a lot different than it did in its original incarnation, but there’s strength in moving forward. *
Susan Carpenter is a Times staff writer.