The Hundred-Year House
By Rebecca Makkai
Viking Adult July 2014
Read for review via Netgalley
In 1999, Zee and Doug return home to Laurelfield, Zee's family estate. It is the last place they want to be, but financial woes force them to live in the carriage house. Zee is a professor with Marxist leanings and Doug is a writer. At least he hopes to one day finish his book on little-known poet Edwin Parfitt, but for now he is writing formulaic books for tween girls (without his wife's knowledge).
Laurelfield has always been a place of mystery - Zee's great-grandmother committed suicide under strange circumstances, an artists' colony stayed at the estate but has few records, and unexplained noises bump in the night. But it seems that the problems are not contained to the past. When another couple moves into the carriage house with Zee and Doug, tensions rise as families feud, flirtations begin, and people are injured on the grounds of the beautiful and unsettling Laurelfield.
The Hundred-Year House is multifaceted. It begins at the end of the twentieth century and then goes back in time as we find some answers and encounter a whole new bunch of questions. We encounter Zee's mother Grace again in 1955 as a newlywed. Her marriage is troubled, to say the least, and the anger and sadness become claustrophobic. Twenty-six years earlier, the estate is home to a zany and fascinating bunch of artists - painters, musicians, and writers, including Edwin Parfitt himself. This is the portion of the novel that is the most comedic, as the artists band together to save the colony from closing.
The atmosphere built throughout this novel is incredible. The estate itself feels haunted. Everyone who is there feels like the spirits of past inhabitants remain and questions are still unanswered. They also feel a distinct sense of destiny and it is clear that some of them are destined to be there, while others are not welcome. Makkai uses a subtle touch throughout this book. You can feel the unease as the characters start to wonder how many of their problems are self-made and how many are caused by forces beyond their control.
Unfortunately, there is just too much going on here. There are too many characters, too many time periods, and too many themes. It is difficult for the reader to focus on any of them for long because it's only a matter of time until you get thrown into a whole new situation. There is a certain kind of reader who will enjoy this box within a box approach to storytelling, but I found it simultaneously overwhelming and underwhelming.
The Hundred-Year House might be called light horror. The creepy air around Laurelfield is undeniable and Zee even teaches a course about ghost stories, but this isn't really about ghosts. It is a literary story about destiny and how our choices can reverberate for centuries to come. This book would be a great pick for a reader who wants to feel a little chill in the air without suffering a sleepless night.