A family tries to save a decaying carriage house in a suburb in which “the neighborhood association is the UN”
The Carriage House: A Novel. By Louisa Hall. Scribner, 281 pp., $26.
By Janice Harayda
An old joke says: “Why do tennis players make bad spouses? Because love means nothing to them.”
That quip seems at first to describe William Adair, a former club tennis champion on the Philadelphia Main Line who in Louisa Hall’s first novel entrusts the care of his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife to a devious Australian aide. William begins to change after he has a stroke and his three adult daughters carry on his fight to save from demolition a decaying family carriage house that neighbors see as a rodent-infested eyesore. Can he hold on to a cherished symbol of his once-grand clan? If not, what can replace it in his affections?
These questions play out in a well-observed novel of contemporary suburban manners with undertones of neo-Gothic melodrama. William’s mentally adrift wife holes up in an upstairs room of their house “like a benign Mrs. Rochester,” a simile that suggests the influence of Jane Eyre on the plot. But Hall borrows less aggressively from Charlotte Brontë than from Persuasion, Jane Austen’s autumnal tale of woman who reconnects with a suitor she had spurned years earlier. The commingled effect of the two classics on the novel resembles that of strangers making polite conversation at cocktail party: They get along well enough but don’t engage deeply with each other.
The Adairs’ battle to save their carriage house revives the connection between William’s daughter Diana, a tennis prodigy turned architecture-school dropout, and Arthur Schmidt, a high school sweetheart who has become a successful restaurateur in the years since she broke off their engagement. In a book inspired by Persuasion, there exists little double about how this reunion will end. But while Austen writes mainly from the point of view of her heroine, Anne Elliot, Hall tells her story from the shifting perspectives of members of the Adair household. This kaleidoscopic approach allows for a multifaceted view of the family’s plight but limits the development of any of its characters. And it gives much less emotional weight to the relationship of Diana and Arthur than Persuasion does to the romance between Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth.
The appeal of The Carriage House lies not in deep characterizations or suspense but in its nuanced attention to the contradictions of an ostensibly genteel suburb in which people act, when the stakes are high “as though the neighborhood association is the UN, and war is imminent, and sacrifices are necessary.” Like Penelope Lively, Hall has keen sense of the weight of history on families. She shows a clan that faces, over a sixth-month period, a conflict larger than any member: the clash between its well-ordered past and the new social free-for-all that it must navigate.
Hall filters some of the incongruities that confront her characters though Margaux’s Australian caregiver, Louise Wilson, who finds solace in trips to a CVS store near the Adairs’ home in the fictional suburb of Breacon. “In CVS, the endless helpful products soothed Louise,” Hall writes. “There were solutions for everything: for calluses and corns, blocked sinuses and acid reflux, acne and rosacea, overthick eyebrows and ingrown hairs. … there were whole aisles set aside for the achievement of physical numbness.” Such gently satirical passages are long way from Austen’s biting wit, but they show a fine eye for absurdities as close as the nearest drug store.
Best line: “Louise watched her tan fading a little bit each day and was filled with a muted version of despair that manifested itself as a constant desire to drive to CVS, where she wandered among fluorescent aisles searching for the perfect product. …
“In CVS, the endlessness of helpful products soothed Louise. There were solutions for everything: for calluses and corns, blocked sinuses and acid reflux, acne and rosacea, overthick eyebrows and ingrown hairs. … there were whole aisles set aside for the achievement of physical numbness.”
Worst line: No. 1: “The boredom was literally killing her.” No, it wasn’t. No. 2: “She took her by the wrist and literally dragged her up to Izzy’s room, where Izzy was sitting at the desk, peering out the window like a cat watching a bunch of crippled canaries.” “Literally” is redundant, and the use of “cat” and “canary” in the same breath is clichéd and strained.
Published: March 2013
About the author: Louisa Hall is a poet who lives in Los Angeles. She grew up in Haverford, PA.
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© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.