The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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July 9, 2010

Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in that House

A friend of mine taught me an addictive game to play in the car. Essentially, it works like this:  as you drive through a neighborhood (preferably an unfamiliar one), you can choose, keep and move into any house you like. The challenge is to pick out your dream house and hope that nothing better comes along on the next street. It's a gentle, non-committal, somewhat pointless way to enjoy house lust and experience chooser's remorse and the ongoing search for the perfect place to call home.

Meghan Daum's memoir is the story of a writer who grows up in a quirky family:

I need first of all to say that we weren't unhappy. Not acutely and not most of the time. Instead, what characterized our little unit - my parents, my brother and me - was a chronic, lulling sensation of being aboard a train that was perpetually two steps away from the destination we had in mind for ourselves. And while I have to emphasize that the reasons for that aren't ultimately related to moving - or even to the fact that that we tended to talk about moving in the same salivating should-we-or-shouldn't-we tones in which some families talk about far-flung ski trips - I don't think it's a stretch to say that our lack of enthusiasm for ourselves had a lot to do with our perpetual curiosity about what possibilities for happiness might lie at the destination point of a moving van We weren't much for card games or sports, but we knew how to escape from places.
Her parents -- her musician, unsuccessful-soundtrack-writing father, and her mother, who wants to escape an unhappy childhood by becoming a faculty wife -- are the most interesting (and sympathetically drawn) figures in the book. When Meghan goes with her father to drop something off to a music copyist, the copyist's Upper West Side apartment, barely seen, becomes her ideal of a place to live (for a while, at least).

Within moments of my walking into this apartment, a hundred goals and priorities I'd never known I had sprung to life inside me. By the time I'd stepped all the way into the living room, I'd decided that I would simply die if I could not, immediately upon graduating from college, live in such a place.

It was a classic of its genre - a prewar apartment with high ceilings and chipping paint on the window sashes and worn hardwood floors covered by a warn Persian rug. I wasn't privy to the bathroom, but I have no doubt it was a solid, epochal affair with a pedestal sink and original porcelain hexagonal tiles, a few of which were probably cracked around the perimeter. It was modest, far smaller than our house on Jones Lane, and not the kind of place you'd think would necessarily rock the world of a seventeen-year-old girl. But my world was rocked. Just as my parents, decades earlier, had glimpsed their existential salvation in the pages of The New Yorker, I'd seen my future, and it was on West End Avenue.

The next 180 pages or so tell the story of Meghan's obsessive, and unending, search for the perfect place to live, which takes her from Vassar (changing dorm rooms each semester) to New York (and an apartment which feels like the one she saw at seventeen), to farmhouses in Nebraska, and then to Los Angeles. After sublets, long and short-term rentals, and almost buying a run-down Nebraska farm, she eventually buys a little house at the height of the real estate bubble.

I'm not quite as obsessive (or as much of a frequent mover) as Meghan is, but I love to look at houses, and apartments, and decorating magazines, and imagine what my ideal house would look like. I wanted to love this book, but I didn't, to be honest. That's not necessarily a reflection on the author or the writing.  I think that when you immerse yourself in a memoir, you have to find the central figures (not just the premise) appealing and engaging. Other readers might identify with her more than I did. As an author, Meghan Daum has a direct, fresh, sometimes humorous voice, but I found the book more interesting in the early chapters (and at the end) when she describes her childhood and her parents. There are some interesting bits too about what it's like to work as a freelance writer and novelist. I'm glad I gave this book a try, but as I was reading it I was thinking, a little obsessively, about the books I would be able to read when I finished this one. :)

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

What are those books?  I started Alexander McCall Smith's Corduroy Mansions over the holiday weekend, and enjoyed the first couple of chapters (the ones I've read so far).  I also read the first chapter or so of The Great Silence, about life in Britain in the two years after the end of World War I.  I think I'll probably weave back and forth between these two over this next weekend...a little bit of London before I go back to Paris?


Frances said...

Unfortunately, I think this book might be one of those that I love in theory but the execution falls off somewhere for me. Have house lust problems myself, and am known for occasionally obsessive re-structuring/re-decorating of my spaces.

Still trying to get to Corduroy Mansions. Glad it is working for you so far.

El said...

Your the second person I know who enjoyed parts of this book. It seems pretty humorous and sounds somewhat sad. Makes me glad I'm happy with where I live!

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