Menna is my “Author of the Month” for April. This book has been on my TBR pile for SO LONG, but it was definitely worth the wait.
Author: Menna van Praag
Release Date: April 4, 2013
Review Copy: Owned/Audiobook (narrator: Elizabeth Sastre)
Distraught that her academic career has stalled, Alba is walking through her hometown of Cambridge, England, when she finds herself in front of a house she’s never seen before, 11 Hope Street. A beautiful older woman named Peggy greets her and invites her to stay, on the house’s usual conditions: she has ninety-nine nights to turn her life around. With nothing left to lose, Alba takes a chance and moves in.
She soon discovers that this is no ordinary house. Past residents have included Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Parker, who, after receiving the assistance they needed, hung around to help newcomers—literally, in talking portraits on the wall. As she escapes into this new world, Alba begins a journey that will heal her wounds—and maybe even save her life.
Filled with a colorful and unforgettable cast of literary figures, The House at the End of Hope Street is a charming, whimsical novel of hope and feminine wisdom.
I adore magical realism, and Menna’s stories have intrigued me since I first discovered her. It’s a bit darker than I thought it would be, and was much more involved than I anticipated, based solely on the write-up. I wasn’t disappointed, just surprised. There is quite a bit more going on than just Alba’s story.
What I loved:
This story has so many of the little details I love in magical realism. The magic is woven through the story in such a lyrical, organic way. The house itself plays such a large part in the story – both as the setting, and as a character that truly influences the residents. I love that previous houseguests “keep in touch” with their more recent counterparts.
There ended up being significant time dedicated to all four of the “current” residents of the house. Each story entertwined with the other by virtue of the womans’ time together. Getting to see the story unfold for each of them, their history – their growth – and their path forward, in their own head, was really interesting. Each of them is in the house to overcome something from their past, and this is where things got a little darker than I anticipated. All of the info was important, of course, I just wasn’t expecting the tone. The author definitely gave each of them depth and complexity. They all managed to get exactly what they needed from the house, and within themselves.
As far as Alba, our “main” main character, goes – her history includes betrayal (on a few levels) and unfortunate family dynamics. Her “gift”, very much like a form of synesthesia, was a really interesting aspect of her journey. There was enough humor to keep the story light in the right places (a ghost in the kitchen sink?), and enough seriousness to give it impact. I was really invested in her attempt to overcome her past and creating a new life for herself (and even find an unexpected romance!)
What I didn’t love:
First, and I almost didn’t include this here because things ended up working out really well — I was confused when we got so deep into each of the other characters’ stories. I was expecting them to play a part in Alba’s story, of course, but didn’t realize we’d be so involved in each of their transformations. In the end, I enjoyed it, but I did spend a lot of time during the first half of the book wanting to get back to Alba, when the others took center page.
I also had some issue with how often the “betrayal” situation came into Alba’s head, with no specifics given to the reader. I understand that some details kept back are for later impact, and we don’t NEED to know everything at the start. My frustration was simply how often it came up in Alba’s thoughts, without having any idea what actually happened.
Overall, the book was both more and less than I expected. It was much more complex than I anticipated, and less of the lighthearted magical realism that I have been used to in my reading history. I definitely appreciated how much thought was given to each of the characters, how they interacted with each other, and the house. I would liken this story more to something from Alice Hoffman than Sarah Addison Allen. But honestly, they all write magic into their words, and now that I know better what to expect, I’m so looking forward to more words from Menna van Praag.