Pick of the Week: The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai
Reading Rebecca Makkai’s inventive sophomore novel, The Hundred-Year House, is like solving a complex puzzle.
When we first visit the grand estate, we meet the elderly Gracie Breen, who is descended from a famous old-money Canadian family, the Devohrs. The home was built north of Chicago in 1900 by her great-grandfather Augustus to oversee his grain investments. A few years later, when Augustus’ wife Violet committed suicide in the attic, he moved out. The house eventually was turned into an artist’s colony from the 1920s to the 1950s, and the artists believed it was haunted by Violet’s ghost.
Gracie now lives in the mansion with her current husband, Bruce Breen. They soon are joined by Gracie’s daughter Zee and husband Doug, who move into the coach house for free. Zee is a Marxist literary professor at a nearby college and Doug is a writer who is struggling to finish a biography about a little known poet named Edwin Parfitt. Doug hopes his stay at the old house will motivate him to finish his biography on Parfitt, who had been a resident of the estate when it was an artist’s colony. But when Doug asks Gracie for permission to explore the locked attic for files about the colony, she refuses. What is Gracie hiding? Is the house haunted? What other surprises does the hundred-year-old house hold?
Makkai slips in bits of information that are important to later parts of the entertaining story, requiring the reader to pay attention. Going back to 1955, 1929 and 1900, Makkai slowly unravels these mysteries with playful writing to conclude an original novel. Full of clever plot twists and interesting characters, The Hundred-Year House is a marvelous work of art, and a great second book to her hilarious debut novel, The Borrower.