Chicagoan Rebecca Makkai has followed-up her much-praised debut novel The Borrower with her already-much-praised sophomore effort, The Hundred-Year House, a witty, inventive, nuanced story with elements of mystery, romance, history, family drama, and professional angst.
Published just this past summer, The Hundred-Year House has earned kudos from the likes of Booklist, Good Housekeeping, Library Journal, People, Publishers Weekly … the list goes on and on. Referred to as a “gothic novel,” an “ambitious saga,” and a “witty mystery,” this charming, genre-busting novel is, indeed, all of that. No matter how one refers to it, no matter where it’s shelved in the bookstore, the bottom line is that The Hundred-Year House is fun and funny, touching and sweet, thoughtful and smart.
A multigenerational family saga that travels backward through time, Makkai’s novel is clever without being gimmicky. Makkai, who teaches at Lake Forest College and StoryStudio Chicago, focuses her story on the fictional Devohr family, a well-to-do bunch of Canadians whose wealth rivals the Vanderbilts’ and whose patriarch ventures out of Toronto to Chicago’s North Shore to build a house for his wife at the turn of the last century. The house, christened Laurelfield, is passed down through the generations, for a time serving as an artists colony that draws quirky, colorful actresses, musicians, painters, sculptors, and writers into its fold.
Nearly half of the book is set in 1999, where we find Zee, a Marxist scholar at a local college who prefers to keep secret the fact that she comes from money, and her husband Doug, a dreamy, unambitious would-be scholar who is easily distracted, living in the coach house on the grounds of Laurelfield. Zee’s mother lives with her second husband in the enormous main house, which is overseen by the specter of Zee’s grandmother Violet, a woman who died mysteriously and might or might not be haunting Laurelfield. Readers then are pulled deeper into the history of the Devohr family and Laurelfield Arts Colony, as well as into the lives—and loves—of its visitors and employees, first stopping at 1955 and then 1929 before wrapping up in 1900.
There is a lot going on in this novel, and Makkai handles it all with a deft pen. Characters come and go throughout the decades, their stories intricately woven into the fabric of Laurelfield. As the story progresses, readers are struck by realizations of who is connected to whom—not in earth-shattering aha! moments but through subtle pieces of evidence that make perfect sense. There’s no heavy-handed drama here; rather, Makkai expertly leads the reader through the various literary labyrinths that pepper Laurelfield’s history. As a result, the trajectories of each character’s story—and the house’s—are wound up neatly but not too neatly, lending The Hundred-Year House a satisfying conclusion.
Locals will enjoy keeping up with the characters’ visits through various Chicago-area locales, although it’s questionable as to whether, say, suburban Highwood is drawn well enough for readers outside the collar counties to get a good feel for place in these pages. Similarly, some readers might find getting a good feel for all of the many characters something of a challenge as the book moves through the decades. Although Makkai does tidy work in relating what happens to whom when, some characters earn richer, deeper treatment than others, which might leave some readers wishing for more.
That said, there’s still little to not like in these pages. Characters do and say witty things, sometimes behaving badly, sometimes making tough decisions, each action and conversation distinct to themselves. The house itself also takes on a life of its own, lending the story a certain romantic nostalgia for a place many readers might well wish they could visit in real life. In fact, Laurelfield and all its inhabitants through the decades are compelling and engaging, making The Hundred-Year House a novel well worth settling in to.
July 2014, Viking
$26.95, hardcover, 338 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen