Rated Reads

The Hundred-Year House

by Rebecca Makkai

Rated: High

In its hundred-year history, Laurelfield has had a variety of occupants: it’s either housed a few rogue members of the highly regarded Devohr family of Canada or a number of artists during its time as an arts colony.

As Y2K approaches, heir Gracie Devohr and her husband, Bruce, live there. Bruce is stockpiling supplies for the inevitable New Year’s apocalypse. Then Gracie’s only child, Zee, a professor who gets a job at a nearby college, moves in to the coach house with her husband, Doug, a writer trying to tackle his magnum opus on the life of obscure poet Edwin Parfitt. Parfitt had been a visiting artist at Laurelfield decades before.

Doug is frustrated that his mother-in-law won’t let him search the house’s attic for information on Parfitt. Zee is frustrated her husband can’t just buckle down and get his book done, and she hates having to live at her old home. She’s also annoyed when Bruce’s son and his wife move in to the coach house as well. She’s sure that Doug will fall for Bruce’s wife, Miriam, an artist who creates mosaics and collages from found items, while she’s off at work trying to secure a job for him (using questionable tactics).

Through various wacky schemes, Doug eventually manages to wrangle entrance to the attic — and what he discovers is not what he expected. The house holds myriad secrets. Author Rebecca Makkai reveals the first “biggie” at the end of the 1999 portion of the book and then takes readers back into the house’s past, first to 1955, and then to 1929, revealing layers of personalities, frustrations and deceptions.

The Hundred-Year House satisfies the most in its structure, the way the plot unfolds and elements come together, just as one of Miriam’s mosaics. Satisfying, too, are Makkai’s metaphors, which are clever, intricate and perfect (I’d hate to share them and spoil the enjoyment of coming upon them in the book).

Most of the characters are not people I liked very much or cared much about, but the fate of one who eventually is found to be the core did matter, and I enjoyed seeing what came of him. I mostly just appreciated the structure; it was interesting rather than annoying to be taken backwards, learning pieces of the story in that fashion. Main drawback, aside from largely unlikable (on their face) characters, was content:

Rated: High, for more than a dozen uses of strong language as well as some other lesser language. There are brief crude sexual references throughout, particularly surrounding one incident.

— Reviewed by Cathy Carmode Lim

Cathy Carmode Lim has been reviewing books for newspapers for more than 20 years, two of which she was a book page editor. She founded Rated Reads in January 2008.

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  • The Hundred-Year House
  • by Rebecca Makkai
  • Rated: High
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Reviewer: