What makes a home? Myra, a therapist, lives alone in a brownstone in the West 90s. Now that her children are grown, Myra has arranged her large house just the way she likes it: her office is in the basement, she gardens in the back, she loves her kitchen. Her daughter, Caro lives nearby and runs a day care center. Caro may never marry, but Myra is the kind of mother who can come to terms with that. Myra’s second child, Adam, a screenwriter, is married to Rachida, a Moroccan dermatologist. Adam and Rachida live in Detroit with their son, Omar. When Rachida decides to train in a new specialty she needs to spend a year in New York, and Myra invites her son’s family to move in. The house will be quite full: Myra’s family has a Peruvian branch, and her cousins, who she barely knows, find that Myra is a soft touch when they need to find a place to park a local girl, Eva, for a few months. Myra agrees that Eva can stay as well – she can try out life as a housekeeper, and help take care of Omar.
Despite Myra’s feeling that everything is satisfactorily arranged, things go wrong from the start. Eva is afraid to sleep alone downstairs in the room Myra had picked out for her, so Myra accommodates her by changing the sleeping arrangements. Adam is clumsy, both physically and emotionally, and his marriage is troubled. Omar and Eva develop a close relationship. Adam is fragile – “acrophobic, claustrophobic, equinophobic” – and has yet to sell a screenplay. He is absorbed with retelling the story of the Werner Herzog movie “Fitzcarraldo” but spends too much time (and money) on pornographic magazines. He and Eva, for reasons that he does not understand, do not get along.
Adam is not the only family member who works at home, of course. Eva and Myra do, too. When Eva begins spending some time in the chair Myra’s patients use it becomes clear to Myra that Eva needs more help than she can provide. But Eva, for reasons both personal and cultural, is reluctant to take any help that comes from outside. It’s the crossing of lines, from home to work to home, from personal to professional, that provide the themes of the novel. With their lives and work so tightly bound, each character also confronts the question: What does it mean to love someone? Even Rachida does, although she spends most of her time at the hospital on call, letting her work expand to fill time she doesn’t want to spend with her husband’s family. As you might expect, with so many different needs, and kinds of love involved, the situation explodes. What’s unexpected is the direction in which the many pieces fly: Morocco, Detroit, a country house, a cross-country trek, and Fifth Avenue. Gornick keeps all the threads clear and convincing through the many byways of this engaging novel.
Lisa Gornick will be appearing at a Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend Event, “Hot and Bothered: Writers on Fire” on September 16 at 8 PM at The Old Stone House, 336 Third Street. More information here. After you’ve heard the panel, take this book with you for a day at the beach or a weekend upstate to look at the leaves. You won’t regret it.
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