In part as a result of the mortgage crisis and in part because of personal circumstances – I’ve changed jobs, moved, and recently sold one home and refinanced another – I’ve been thinking of the dream or, in many cases, the nightmare, of home ownership. Stories on NPR have sought to clarify the source of our national dream, attributing it to Herbert Hoover, and to turn it inside out by demonstrating that increasingly, home ownership isn’t at all the best investment for many.
Still the dream of owning one’s own piece of real estate seems somehow worth pursuing. It’s an emblem of maturity and financial stability in our post twentieth-century psyche. It represents one’s family history and functions as one’s investment in the future. Indeed, the recent pages of the Plain Dealer featured a young man with his grandfather’s home tattooed over his heart.
One recent novel dealing with how houses come to mean more than themselves is Marilynne Robinson’s Home, one of the most gorgeous, spare, contemplative novels I’ve read in years. Another is Valerie Laken’s Dream House: A Novel. Home, Robinson’s sequel to her earlier Gilead resonates with biblical references, literary tradition, and sentences that stop the reader in her tracks. When I finished Robinson’s novels, I vowed to return to them soon, for surely I’d missed some hint of meaning even as I’d rationed my reading to extend the exquisite experience.
Dream House: A Novel, the subject of this review, is different. A neatly-crafted plot drives it along, picking up speed, until the end, which leaves the reader empty and wondering what the next steps are for the characters.
The plot is structured through three stories: the central tale features a young Ann Arbor school teacher Kate and her husband Stuart, who have purchased a new home in a recently-gentrified family neighborhood. Two other narratives intersect with the story of the young couple. The first features the shop teacher at the woman’s high school who, during his years at the University of Michigan, had worked part-time for a company that cleaned homes immediately following disasters: for example, fires, floods, or murders. The second revolves around Walker, a black man recently released from prison for murder. Both men come to Kate’s aid as she first tears the house down to its studs and then reassembles it to make it her own.
At turns, the plot seems contrived. The young wife, for example, learns about the murder that has taken place in her home by through reading old police reports at the library. (She is a good researcher, probably like the writer of the novel.) At one point early in the narrative, an old letter written in German floats down from the rafters. She learns that the first owners of the house were Germans. The reader wishes Laken had made some connection. What of this letter? It finds its way into a swimming pool at one point, the intent of the sender fading as the ink hits the water. I am reminded of Chekhov’s advice about how that rifle hanging over the mantle in Act One had better be fired by Act Three. The letter, however, provides little information about the house or about the current owner.