Monday, September 1, 2014

Review: The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell

I have gotten to a point in my life where I am going through my things and getting rid of stuff. I feel weighed down by it and realize that most of it doesn't need to be in my house and my life. This does not apply to my books, of course, although I am getting more discerning about what I keep on my permanent shelves there too. This desire to pare down and divest is the exact opposite of someone who hoards, who feels the need to anchor themselves in things, to continually acquire and squirrel away possessions. But hoarders are more than just people who want stuff. They have something in them, some deep hurt, some mental illness that compels them to compulsive collecting. Seeing the genesis and the result of such a hard thing is at the center of Lisa Jewell's newest novel, The House We Grew Up In.

Opening with an email from Lorelei Bird to an internet love interest named Jim, the email introduces the matriarch of the Bird family in her own words and through her own eyes. Just as quickly, then comes the contrast of what Megan Bird thinks of her mother and what she and her teenaged daughter expect to see when they open the door to the once charming but now dilapidated Cotswold cottage of her childhood.  It is so much worse than they ever expected, a solid wall of stuff with only narrow and winding paths through it to the rest of the house, equally packed from floor to ceiling and wall to wall. Lorelei Bird was a hoarder, unable and unwilling to pare anything out of her life and now the crumbling house stuffed to the brim mirrors the cracks and secretly nurtured layers of guilt in this dysfunctional family.

But how did the present happen? The Birds used to be a fun and appealing family with planned Easter egg hunts every year, a kitchen full of children's drawings, and a cozy feeling of love in the golden time before. Colin supported Lorelei's whimsy and their four children, Megan, Bethan, and twins Rory and Rhys benefitted from her childlike enthusiasms. But even then, Lorelei's quirky eccentricities carried the seed of something more. And in the aftermath of the terrible tragedy of the Easter of 1981, what was whimsical became sad, eccentricity edged into mental illness, and not one person in this now dysfunctional family was left unchanged and untouched. Each member of the family carries a load of guilt and each of them manifests that guilt in their own way, all of them ending up mostly estranged from the others.

The narrative alternates between past and present, slowly exposing the cracks and rifts of the present and terrible truth of the past. In between the two different narratives are Lorelei's emails to Jim, allowing her to tell her side of things, giving her uniquely positive spin, a spin that grows cautiously more honest, opening Lorelei up to face her own demons as time goes on. As the Birds gather to unload Lorelei's house, they excavate not only their own shared past but also the hurts they've long carried. And while Lorelei might have spent much of her adult life buried in things, the rest of them have also been buried, just in guilt and jealousy and anger rather than possessions. Some of the things that happen in the Bird family belong on a sensational talk show, a woman leaving her husband for another woman, a father having a relationship with his son's ex, and a sister having an affair with her brother-in-law and if they are unbelievable on a trashy talk show, they are strangely believable here in this sad and destroyed family.

Jewell has written an insightful and engrossing tale of a family slowly sinking under the weight of Lorelei's possessions and  under all of each person's sadness and secrets. They are changed forever by adultery, mental illness, suicide, and the messiness of relationships. The pacing is consistent and the narrative tension is steady, with both the mystery of the tragedy that changed the family tantalizingly kept under wraps as long as possible and the question of what happened to Lorelei and how the house got into such a state also revealed slowly and deliberately. The characters are realistic and well rounded, neither all good nor all bad, even if the reader does side with some over others.  This is an engrossing tale, well delivered and I defy you to want to hold onto more things once you've closed the cover.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.


  1. Its funny. I read this one several months ago and had completely forgotten about the hoarding part of it, which really was major now that I think about it.

  2. I love the sound of this one. On the TBR list. Have a great week Kristen

  3. I enjoyed reading your review. I am currently reading this novel.


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