Category Archives: 2010 Fiction

Property Values

Rose Tremain’s 2010 novel Trespass is a dark story about two pairs of brothers and sisters with convoluted relationships and how property further entangles them in old quarrels and sorrows, with disastrous results. It’s also a tale of outsiders and insiders, as is often the case with novels set in France. (If you haven’t read Diane Johnson’s elegant, satirical novels Le Mariage, Le Divorce, and L’Affaire, now would be a good time.)

Trespass opens when a young girl, wandering away from a class trip, discovers a crime; Tremain uses this event to tell story of the roiling emotions that have led to this point. Anthony Verey, once a wealthy, celebrated British antiques dealer, decides that living near his cherished sister Veronica will cure his depression and give him a fresh start. Veronica lives in Provence with her lover, Kitty, who hates Anthony. He sets off to find the perfect house, one that will be an elegant setting for his “beloveds,” a few perfect treasures from his shop. Anthony’s quest made me think of David Sedaris’s comment about “the rejuvenating power of real estate.” (It appears in  Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.) But lest you think that there’s humor in Tremain’s book, I’ll remind you right away that this is a dark story, filled with the awful baggage the characters bring from childhood.

Anthony is enchanted by Mas Lunel, an old stone house owned by Aramon Lunel, a dissipated, alcoholic wretch, who has relegated his sister Audrun to a makeshift cottage on the edge of the property. The rifts in their relationship are seismic and Mas Lunel looms as a symbol of all that went wrong. Anthony’s narcissistic interest in Mas Lunel as a canvas for his life sets in motion a chain of events with fatal consequences.

This bare outline of the story doesn’t reveal how Tremain’s damaged characters come alive on the page, with all their hopes and sorrows. I read an earlier novel, The Way I Found Her, several years ago and always meant to read more of her novels. Now I will.

Below I’ve put together a short list of novels and memoirs about houses and how they affect family relationships. It’s a common dream that the place we live in will change our lives. Anyone who reads the articles in the Sunday NY Times Real Estate section sees that weekly.

Barker, Pat. Another World
Forster, E.M. Howard’s End
Lively, Penelope. Family Album
Mawer, Simon. The Glass Room
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Boylan, Jennifer Finney. I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted
Fiennes, William. The Music Room: A Memoir

Penelope Lively

Family Album by Penelope Lively
Lively has been one of my favorite authors through the years; she never disappoints me with her stories of the emotional turmoil  at the heart of her characters’ relationships. The family in question here is the Harpers, 6 children, two parents, and the au pair who stays on after the children are grown. Their large Edwardian house, Allersmead, is meant to be the gracious center of a warm and loving family, but harbors a shocking secret and painful heartaches. Lively shifts the point of view from one character to another and we get to know them all quite well. There’s no plot to speak of, just the rubbing together of a set of complex personalities,  which is quite engrossing enough.

Oh, that unreliable narrator!

I just finished Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden and I may just have to read it again. I need to see if what I now know about the characters changes how I feel about them from the start. The story is told by the unnamed narrator who is staying in Molly Fox’s Dublin apartment while Molly is in New York. She tells the story of her friendship with Molly, an acclaimed stage actress, and the friends they’ve had in common while observing how Molly’s flat reflects its owner. The narrator is a successful playwright, a close observer, a writer who finds material in small, unusual incidents.

Over the course of one day her thoughts range over their friendship with its ups and downs and other (mostly male) friends and family members, particularly Andrew, a well-known art critic. Molly is something of an enigma to the narrator despite the fact that they are very close. But the narrator is something of an enigma to the reader, and we realize that these two women may be incapable of closeness because of the professions they’ve chosen. Or, because of their detachment, have the professions chosen them? Madden–and the narrator–dole out information in bits and pieces; maddeningly, tantalizingly, we don’t always have the information we need to assess what we’re being told. There’s no plot to speak of–the plot’s in our heads as we try to understand the characters and their motivations. It’s a very absorbing “take” on an old plot device. In addition, there’s great food for thought about the craft of acting and, by extension, the creation of character in writing. 

When it comes to memoirs, the unreliable narrator is the ground under our feet. If we used the same narrative device–following our thoughts and actions for a day–how much would we choose to tell when we sat down that night to write it up? What would we embellish, omit, analyze, forget, or misinterpret? If we imposed a narrative structure to make it interesting, would that edge it over into fiction? Maybe that’s the fascination of memoirs–the different ways that writers use their material. I’m thinking about this in the light of several memoirs I’ve just read. More to come…