The Hundred-Year House: A Novel by Rebecca Makkai (New York: Viking, 2014. 352 pp)
Rebecca Makkai’s first novel, The Borrower, was a Booklist Top Ten Debut, an Indie Next pick, and an O, The Oprah Magazine selection. Her work has appeared in Harper’s, Tin House, Ploughshares, and New England Review, and has been selected four times for The Best American Short Stories. The recipient of a 2014 NEA Fellowship, she lives in Chicago and Vermont.
The History of Place
I live in a house nearing its one-hundredth birthday. I am aware of a few of the inhabitants before me, perhaps 5 years worth of residency. The people meandering these rooms for the other 95 years are left to the imagination. How many children called this place their first home, as my son will? How many marriages? Funerals? Was it a happy home? I could certainly answer some of these questions with a little digging, but the general history of place carries significant sway.
This theme emerges as the central motif of Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House.
A Book in Reverse
This novel unfolds in reverse. The narrative begins at the end of the century with residents of the eponymous house facing a new millennium and the fears of Y2K.
There’s Zee, a Marxist academic who holds the tension of her philosophy with the affluence of her family and the decadent house they’ve owned for generations.
Zee lives with her parents at their estate, Laurelfield, with her husband Doug, an struggling academic who hopes to gain inspiration from this large home that once housed creative types earlier in the century, including the subject of his doctoral thesis, the poet Eddie Parfitt.
When a married couple moves into Laurelfield temporarily, Zee can’t help but feel jealousy as her unmotivated husband shares a residency with a young artist. Surely, infidelity will follow.
Interestingly, Doug’s research unravels some mysteries about the estate, Zee’s family, and the artist colony that utilized the space.
And that’s where Makkai jumps backward in her story. Each time answering questions that arise from previous chapters that occur in the future. We gain insight into Zee’s truculent mother, Grace, and her first husband, Grant. Even earlier, we see curious happenings around the artists that view Laurelfield as a sanctuary.
Earliest of all, we see the matriarch of the family, Violet, whose massive portrait has remained in the dining room of Laurelfield for over a century and whose urban legends lead many to believe the house is haunted.
Relationship to Place
While the narrative offers depths of intrigue, Makkai elaborates upon the strange relationship people have with place. Sometimes environment fits the person like a glove.
Other times, not so much.
“’This place doesn’t want me,’ he said. ‘It’s rejecting me. Like a transplanted organ’” (123).
Laurelfield in particular provides a strange pull of attraction for its visitors, a little like a magnet. For some, they can’t leave no matter what. For others, the door cannot hit the derrière quickly enough. The house becomes it’s own universe.
“There was something wrong with the house. The windows gazed in on you instead of out at the world” (266).
Within this context, Makkai’s choice to write the story backwards makes sense. The book almost feels like water circling a drain.
The Hundred-Year House explores the intrigue behind the history of place. Who were the people who called your home, home? How did this environment inspire them or drive them mad?
Rebecca Makkai explores these questions in great detail in an enjoyable read.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5