The Hippo


Jul 4, 2020








Dream House, by Catherine Armsden
(Bonhomie Press, 320 pages)

By Jennifer Graham

 In the exquisite opening to Catherine Armsden’s debut novel, a house sits alone, abandoned by its unknown inhabitants, who had obviously intended to return. The kitchen still smells of bacon, butter softens on the table, and the ruins of two tea bags stain cold cups. Two days pass before someone comes in and closes up the house, suggesting tragedy though no specifics are revealed.

It is a strange and lovely preface that sets up a story that has nothing – and everything – to do with the people who lived in the house. The protagonist is that couple’s daughter, Gina, who comes to the Maine cottage with her older sister to clean out the house. Gina, a married mother of two, grew up in the house, though she lives in California now and only rarely visited her parents, and even then out of duty, not love. An architect, she is busy designing a home near San Francisco that she and her husband intend to be their forever home.
Gina’s sister, a caterer named Cassie, lives closer, in Providence, and the sisters’ relationship is strong, though with their parents, less so. The family has a claim to fame: A relative had been George Washington’s assistant, and his home, called Lily House, was famous because General Washington had visited there, and it was rumored that hidden in the house was correspondence that Washington had exchanged with Thomas Jefferson.
Cassie and Gina did not grow up in Lily House, but in the modest home a mile away, described in the novel’s opening. It had a fabulous water view and a few ornate touches, such as the portraits of ancestors “who seemed to ask her with a thin-lipped grimness whether the aristocratic likes of them could expect a more dignified future beyond this humble home.” It is the home which the adult Gina shuns because of traumatic memories from childhood, but despite them, the house has a hold on her, and she is determined to figure out why. (In one vivid piece of imagery, Gina imagines memories, “nested wasp-like in these walls, ready to swarm.)
She begins sketching the house, and the process summons cobwebby recollections that are interspersed with the real-time narrative to slowly reveal not only the whole of Gina’s life, but that of her parents, as well as their true motivations. The family spells dysfunction with a capital D. It comprises a mother prone to hysteria and rage (she is frequently pitching trays of cookies and her daughter’s gifts out a window), and a father who seems little more than obsequious enabler. Over time, however, the house coaxes the full picture of the family in view.
No, nothing explodes. The house doesn’t catch on fire, no terrorists strike, and no hurricane threatens. The novel is low on conventional drama, and at times suffers from a plodding pace. There is the occasional indulgence of detail that seems to be leading to something more significant but fails to deliver, as in an early sequence of Gina finding and endeavoring to bury a dead skunk, which later disappears for another hundred pages.
These quibbles are redeemed, however, by the gorgeous writing, rich character development and believable dialogue. You know these places, and these people, at least some of them. And Armsden knows them intimately, it turns out.
On her website, Armsden reveals that much of the novel is autobiographical. Her parents lived in a rented house in Maine, just like Gina’s parents in the novel (Armsden’s parents for 61 years, Gina’s for 50). Armsden moved to San Francisco, like her protagonist. She’s an architect (and married one), and she has two sisters. And Armsden’s family also has a link to George Washington. She is related to Tobias Lear, who was Washington’s secretary; in her grandparents’ estate an original copy of the Declaration of Independence was found.
The old writer’s platitude “Write what you know” only works if the writer knows about things that are interesting. Armsden does, and her life experience combines to create a skillfully plotted New England novel with a satisfying sense of place. It’s not a throbbing page-turner, but a leisurely, philosophical analysis of a life, overlaid with the power of a physical dwelling place, not only while we live there but after we leave it.  
Blueprints for houses can be corrected to prevent errors, but, “There were no blueprints for a human life, no architect to pore over details that would ensure a sound and enduring structure,” Gina observes in the novel. “…When it came to human lives, corrections were only occasionally made; life grew around a secret like skin around a splinter.” It has a lackluster title, but Dream House is smarter than it looks, and Armsden is a promising writer. B+ 
— Jennifer Graham 

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