A novelist recalls her self-diagnosed “addiction” to changes of address
Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House. By Meghan Daum. Knopf, 256 pp., $24.
By Janice Harayda
Meghan Daum looks back on years of binging and purging on housing in this memoir of a condition that sounds like the real-estate equivalent of bulimia. Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House follows the standard format of addiction-and-recovery narratives:
Describe the problem. Daum switched dorms every semester after her first year of college and lived in 18 temporary residences in 15 years before buying a small house in Los Angeles. When you’re as restless as she is, she says, “the real estate section of the newspaper is a form of pornography.”
Acknowledge your shame. “I’m not proud of any of this,” Daum says, after describing how she reneged on an impulsive offer to buy a Nebraska farm. About kicking out a New York roommate, she writes, “That story is shameful.”
Link your behavior to childhood experiences. Daum says that if her family had “anything close to a regular weekend activity” when she was growing up in New Jersey, it was attending open houses, a pursuit rooted in her mother’s frustrated wish to live in the kind of place “a person who read The New Yorker” would inhabit.
Put your story in a social context, so people will see its wider relevance. “At the risk of making a perverse and offensive comparison, I don’t think I’d observed so much absorption with one topic since the attacks of September 11, 2001,” Daum writes of the interest in real-estate in California in 2004.
Add a happy ending. In this case, it wears pants.
At times Daum shows the vanity-masquerading-as-humility often found in recovery narratives. She can be a snob. In Venice, California, she sublet a cottage full of “awful furniture” from a single woman in her 20s and congratulates herself on her superior taste. Her own furnishings might reside in storage units: “But at least I did not own a media cabinet the size of a truck.”
This snobbism appears to stem not from strong political or other principles such as environmentalism or anti-consumerism — on the evidence of this book, she’s a raging consumerist — but from insecurity, the sense that her self-worth depended on presenting a certain appearance, that she never fully explains. It is certainly true that in our culture, people often judge by appearances. But Daum never comes to grips with the forces behind that impulse that may have motivated her chronic dissatisfaction with here she lived. If her mother yearned for a certain kind of home, the same cultural traits may explain both her behavior and her mother’s. In some ways Daniel McGinn does a much better job of explaining the compulsion to seek new property in his House Lust.
Daum has called Joan Didion a literary influence, and her distaste for the media cabinet in her Venice sublet echoes faintly an essay in which Didion wrote of the Reagan-built governor’s mansion in Sacramento: “it is the kind of house that has a wet bar in the living room.” The difference is that Didion’s comment served a larger theme and carried far more symbolic weight: Didion was eviscerating the shallow values of rich and influential people whose decisions affect many others. Daum faults the tastes of an anonymous woman who was caring for a mother with cancer during her sublet. She suggests that “self-loathing” explains why single women buy inexpensive furniture such as wicker chairs and collapsible bookcases when these purchases often amount instead to a modern example of Jane Austen’s “single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor.” And the media cabinet may have may have reflected the opposite of “self-loathing”: It may have sprung from a healthy recognition by the owner that she didn’t have to wait for a man to buy her an item she would enjoy.
Daum writes with flair and sometimes wit, and in her title and elsewhere, she describes an undeniable reality: Many people do fantasize that their lives “would be perfect” if they had a certain kind of house, and this may cause them to live in suspended animation. But in a book that is longer on style than substance, she doesn’t begin to come to grips with the moral, spiritual or other emptiness the pattern can betoken. Nor does her memoir reflect the coherent worldview of the best work of stylists like Didion and Nora Ephron, a counterpart to Didion’s ironic detachment and sense of dread or Ephron’s brash feminism. At times, Daum seems to lack a sense of who she is apart from her sleek, nickel-plated ceiling fans. If her book were a house, it would be a pretty vacation cottage, built on stilts.
Best lines: No 1: The first: “Yesterday, a piece of my house came off in my hands.” No. 2: “What I didn’t know back then … was that it wasn’t the prewar apartment I craved but, rather, an ineffable state of being I can only describe as domestic integrity.” No. 3: “I have never been able to say I’m from New Jersey without feeling as if I were wearing someone else’s name tag at a party.”
Worst lines:No. 1: “I’d be lying if I said that these weren’t arguably the most important professional years of my life.” No. 2: “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that …” No. 3: “And if you’ll pardon the expression … ” Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House has a lot of flab like this.
Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reading copy. Some material in the finished book may differ.
© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.