Friday, April 26, 2013

Review: The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna van Praag

What do you do when you have exhausted all hope? When the worst thing you can imagine happening has in fact happened? When you have no idea where your life is going now? Are there people in your life to whom you turn? Is there a place you can retreat and recharge? In Menna van Praag's charming new novel, The House at the End of Hope Street, there is a magical house that serves as a place where women who don't know where they are headed next can take time to find their path.

Nineteen year old genius and synesthete, Alba Ashby, has had the very worst thing she can think of happen to her and she  when she finds herself standing at the door to a his completely lost when she finds herself at the door of a house she's never noticed before at the end of Hope Street. When she knocks, she finds that the house and Peggy Abbott, the house's caretaker, have been waiting for her. She will be allowed a total of 99 nights to stay in the house and to figure out her path. And she won't have to figure it out alone. The house will help. On the walls are portraits of famous women who have all come to the house at one time or another to find their way, from authors to big names in the women's movement to actresses and more. Best yet, these portraits are not simply on the walls, they actually consult with the current inhabitants and help steer them in the direction of their destiny. The talking portraits are not the only delightful magical part of the house though. It sends notes to the women living there when it needs them to know something. It gives each occupant the deepest desire of her heart, a wardrobe of phenomenal clothing or a room piled to the ceiling with books for example. And there are ghosts around, from Mog the cat to Stella, who sits in the kitchen sink waiting to talk to Alba and who holds an important key to Alba's past and to her future.

Alba is reeling from her major disappointment, her newfound knowledge of herself (which is only slowly shared with the reader), the seeming loss of her heretofore acute receptivity and synesthesia, and her uncertainty about her direction in life now that she has lost the thing that has most defined her for the majority of her life. In addition to all of this, her mother, who has long battled bipolar disorder, finally succeeds in committing suicide and so Alba must go home, where she learns shocking news about her parents, her siblings, and herself.  And armed with this new confounding knowledge, she will return to the house to spend more of her 99 days in its comforting embrace.

Alba isn't the only resident of the house; there's also Carmen, a singer who has lost her voice and is haunted by whatever she's buried in the garden and Greer, an actress who is keeping an old and emotionally wrenching secret. Not to forget Peggy, who has taken care of the house and the women in it for almost her entire lifetime, following in the footsteps of other psychic women in her family (the house doesn't particularly like men) and who has finally recognized her own true love. Each of the women is facing an unfamiliar and unexpected turn in the path she expected her life to take. The house is not the only thing that will help them determine their direction though, their connection to each other will also help.

This is a whimsical, lovely, and enchanting novel about female empowerment. The house at the end of hope street is a refuge for those who find themselves at its door; it is both physically at the end of the street and symbolically at the end of hope for the confused and hurting women who find themselves on its front stoop. While mostly light magical realism, van Praag also touches briefly on deeper issues such as spousal abuse, adoption, sexuality, fidelity, and family, both created and genetic. She's created an appealing setting and done a wonderful job making it seem possible and sometimes even slyly entertaining. (The characters on the china naughtily acting out the Kama Sutra and partner swapping as frequently as soap opera characters is one of my favorite bits.) The characters here are all trapped, paralysed by things in their pasts that make it impossible for them to move on. They are emotionally damaged but completely sympathetic and van Praag has managed to keep each character and the problems of her past mysterious as long as possible, lending an air of mystery to the novel. The tale as a whole is bewitching, quirky, and wondrous. There are darker moments for sure but in general, it is a book that makes the reader smile and give it a gentle, heartfelt hug as she turns the last page.

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

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