Rebecca Makkai works her family saga backwards in The Hundred-Year Old House from the absurd predictions of Y2K to the turn of the century in 1900. The House itself may be the main character, with its history of ghosts, secrets, and scandalous artists once in residence. The tale might have been easier to read from the last page to the first, but then all the mystery and suspense would have disappeared.
Do you believe in ghosts? Do you think someone could completely reinvent a history to become a new person? Would you reopen a sealed door in a wall, or merely keep painting over it? Would the key to a locked attic entice your imagination? Makkai uses these, with a number of other contrivances, to create a clever story based on the Laurelfield Mansion outside of Chicago – initially built by a wealthy Canadian for his bride, evolving to a haunted artist colony, back to a private home with secrets and more ghosts, and finally back again to a site for artists. Makkai weaves the characters together in the end, answers all the questions, resolves who really is who, and solves every mystery, but not before leading the reader through a path twisted with revelations, that may or may not be true.
If you’ve read Makkai’s first book, The Borrower, you may remember her penchant for wry humor and unlikely possibilities evolving into reality. In The Hundred-Year Old House, Makkai has fun with old family histories that no one really remembers accurately, sounds of ghosts in the night that might prove to be nothing more than not-so-quiet assignations, artist colonies with creativity leaking into debauchery, and the cynical irreverent halls of academia. Yet, the bones of the story are solid, as Makkai gleefully leads the reader back in time through generations. The present day inhabitants may never know all the house’s secrets, but the reader will, as she carries the story back in time to the 1950’s, 1920’s, and finally 1900.
The story begins with Zee accepting her mother’s offer to live in the coach house at Laurelfield, her hundred-year-old estate north of Chicago. Doug, Zee’s husband, working on his unfinished research about an obscure poet, Edwin Parfitt, is fascinated by the house’s previous life as an artists’ colony, and hopes to discover old papers from the poet who was in residence at Laurelfield in the twenties. The locked files in the attic with the artists’ materials promise to save his stalled research and pave a new career for him; however, his mother-in-law refuses him access. With help from the wife of Zee’s step-brother, an artist who has also moved into the coach house, Doug finally accesses the Parfitt file, but finds unexpected and shocking material. When he confronts his mother-in-law, she conveniently recreates history. At this point, Makkai gently reverses time into the 1950’s to the artist colony, and the revelations begin.
Although the story stalled for me in the beginning, the shocking revelation came just in time to keep me reading, and the surprises just kept on coming. I like Makkai’s talent for transforming the ordinary into convoluted plot twists, and unearthing the characters’ inner workings. She tells a good story, and, if you are patient and read carefully, you’ll find her commentary.
Read my review of The Borrower – here