July 13, 2014


by Rebecca Makkai
339 pages, Viking Adult, Digital Review Copy

Review by J. S. Colley

I should have written this review a week ago, but I was on jury duty and, to be honest, this is going to be a very hard review for me to write, so I've been procrastinating. How to not sound self-righteous nor like a pedant? I don’t know, but I will try, because my intention is not to be either of those things. I will say this author is a talented writer. I highlighted many passages that I found well-crafted or otherwise remarkable. But one’s overall reaction to a novel is very subjective and this review will be just that—one person’s opinion.

I’ve had debates with readers (and writers) about the fairness of judging a book by the “likeability” of the characters. Is it the responsibility of the writer to make the reader love every character? Do we expect to agree with the protagonist on all issues in order to enjoy a book? My answer is, of course not!  How boring would that be? Don’t we learn something about human nature when we read fiction? Isn't that what writers do—reveal, unwashed, the innermost workings of the human mind and take us places we might never go in real life? But where is the line drawn between unlikeable characters and characters so shallow that, because of their very lack of depth, there is no room for us to gain any insight? There is only room for us to wallow around in the muck with them; only wanting to escape.

This story is told in a reverse timeline, starting with the present inhabitants of The Hundred-Year House and working back to the original occupants. The book covers, as indicated by the title, one century. The decisions and actions of the characters during each of the eras are, at best, mean-spirited and, at worst, unethical and immoral. Do all protagonists have to be ethical to be compelling? Again, no. But the actions of these characters—which ranged from blackmail (twice) to stolen identity—were excused by the author for the flimsiest, most selfish of reasons. An example is when one of the several protagonists sets up her colleague to be falsely charged with watching porn on his work computer so her husband might have his job after he’s fired. This woman sees nothing wrong with her actions, in fact she feels supremely justified, because she doesn't hold the same ideological views. Here’s the problem: when the writer has an agenda and it shines through, with no subtly or attempt to make the reader work for it—shoving it in their face like a shaving-cream pie—it jars (if not offends) them.

As viewers, we didn't “like” Norman Bates as he was stabbing Janet Leigh in “Psycho” but neither were we expected to think his behavior was acceptable, no matter that Ms. Leigh had just robbed a bank. He was a compelling character because we knew he was off-balance. And here’s where we might find the real problem: if the author of this novel intended the reader to see that these characters were somehow unhinged, then it was not apparent, at least not to this reader. Was the house supposed to be possessed? Was it evil and made anyone who inhabited it become evil too? In fact, it would have made the book more gripping. If there was even a hint of this, then I missed it and, if I did, then I apologize.

I could go on and on to try and explain my visceral reaction to this book. I could quote and give more examples, but it's probably better to just fall back on that old standard of book reviewers; the characters weren't likeable. Unfortunately, this trumped everything for me, even the splendid writing skills of the author.

Thank you to NetGalley for the review copy.

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