I find reading about exciting book ideas incredibly thrilling and when I found a brief synopsis of The Hundred Year House, I was one hundred percent in. A book where the house is the constant through time, written in reverse, from the modern day into the past? Joy, joy, joy! A friend had warned me that she had found the structure of this novel extremely difficult. Not understanding sufficiently the significance of later events which happen earlier in the novel, she felt upon finishing it, that really she should have read it in reverse. Weirdly, her comments just fuelled my fire to read it, for as much as I respected my friend, the lovely Miss M, surely such a good idea could not really be flawed? Unfortunately, she was right.
Laurelfield is owned by the wealthy Devohr family and for a period of time, in the early 1900’s functioned as an artists colony. The family, like the house is a constant throughout. At the turn of the millennium the property or rather the coach house associated with the main house is inhabited by Zee, a descendant of the Devohr’s. Her mother, Gracie lives in the main house with her second husband and some staff. Zee is married to a struggling academic, who is deceiving her by writing formulaic young adult fiction whilst claiming to be working on a biography of Edwin Parfitt, a poet who had stayed at Laurelfield during the 1920s. Essentially the threads that weave the story together are Edwin Parfitt, the artist colony and the duplicity, or rather failings, of the Devohr family.
It’s funny, but as I start to write about this book, I begin to like it more. Certainly it is a book that should have more that one reading, but therein lies the essential problem. I just don’t care enough to give it a second go. I know that this is becoming a common theme in my reviews, but I really am struggling with this fashion of building stories around characters that are fundamentally unlikeable. Just as in life, why would you invest time in people you don’t like, so I find it with fiction. You have to be an incredibly engaging anti-hero for me to invest my time.
In the first two sections of this book, I tried to feel empathy towards our female protagonists and the struggling Doug, but found it nearly impossible. The second section, based on the story of Zee’s mother Grace, found me profoundly failing to engage with her. Certainly, at the end of that section my interest piqued, but not because I really cared about the outcome for her character, but rather because it started to explain something that had baffled me previously. The third part is better and actually as I think about it, the book does progressively improve, but when dealing with the artist’s colony, Makkai fails to give the story quite enough time. This means that, as a reader, it takes you a while to grasp who the characters are, whether they be artists, painters, dancers, writers, musicians etc, etc and then, once you think you have it and find yourself enjoying the book, perhaps for the first time, it ends. True enough, there are a couple of very clever character twists in the book, one relating to Grace and the other to Edwin Parfitt himself, both of which I enjoyed.
Overall the book feels messy, a brilliant idea that frustratingly fails to deliver and even more annoyingly, I think if Makkai had written the book in chronological order, although I still wouldn’t have loved it, I certainly would have enjoyed it more.