The Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai (2014).
Makkai's previous book The Borrower was one of my favorite reads of 2011. So I was super excited to see that she had a book coming out this year. The Hundred Year House is set in a large mansion in the northern suburbs of Chicago (::cough:: Lake Forest ::cough::) that used to be an artist colony called Laurelfield. The first part of the book takes place in 1999, when the house is on the verge of its centennial, and then the book works back through the house's history.
In 1999, we follow the saga of Marxist English professor Zee and her unemployed academic husband Doug. Zee was raised at Laurelfield, and she and Doug move into the coach house when the couple falls on hard times. Doug is purportedly working an a career making tome about a poet Edwin Parfitt, who once stayed at Laurelfield. However, he spends more of his time writing for a Baby Sitter's Club like series and flirting with Miriam, the artist wife of Zee's brother-in-law Chad with whom they share the coach house. When Dough starts asking questions about the artist colony and looking around for papers, he's surprised to find Zee's mom, Gracie, oddly standoffish and protective of the topic. Is she hiding something? This section is very funny and works as both an academic satire and a very shaggy mystery novel.
The book then cuts to earlier history of the mansion. In 1950s, the artist's colony is shut down, so Grace DeVohr (Zee's mom) can move their with her abusive, alcoholic husband. Separated from her family and without a friend nearby, Grace finds her situation increasingly desperate. We also glimpses of Laurelfield in the 1920s, as an active artist colony, including when Edwin Parfitt stayed there. Finally, the book ends were the house began, with the original owners, including Zee's ancestor, a beautiful woman who committed suicide and supposedly "haunts" the mansion.
The Hundred Year House is a great read There are various connections between all of the stories taking place at Laurelfield throughout the decades. Once you finish the book, you'll probably want to reread it to catch all the links. Makkai has a lot of fun filling the book with made-up cultural references. I googled a lot of the artists and celebrities she created for this book, thinking they might actually be real. The Hundred Year House has occasional dark moments, but it is definitely a lot of fun.
Landline by Rainbow Rowell (2014).
Rainbow Rowell is a staff favorite. I highly recommend reading any book by her. Landline is her latest release, which focuses on the struggling marriage between the hard-working TV writer, Georgie McCool, and her stay-at-home husband, Neal. Two days before Georgie is set to go with Neal and their two daughters to Neal's childhood home in Nebraska, she and her writing partner Seth get the opportunity to write their dream pilot. Unfortunately that means staying in L.A. and working over Christmas. Neal is not so thrilled with the idea, and takes his two daughters to Omaha without Georgie.
Meanwhile, Georgie is left fretting over the state of her marriage. Did Neal leave for vacation or her all together? Rather than be alone in their house, Georgie stays temporarily at her mom's house with her sarcastic sister Heather. While staying there, she makes an interesting discovery, the landline phone in her bedroom allows her to call back into the past, and she begins talking to Neal from a time shortly before they became engaged. Will the phone time travel save her marriage, or prevent it from ever happening?
The premise for the book sounds a little bit unusual (certainly much more Sci-Fi than Rowell's other work), but don't let it sway you from checking out the book. Rowell is able to write really funny characters and dialogues. The interactions between Georgie, her free-spirited mom, and her sister Heather are often laugh out loud funny, and were one of my favorite parts of the book. It was also refreshing to read a story where the romantic arc is between a long married couple, rather two people just falling in love. Rowell does a great job of showing how external strains can really affect the relationship between two people who genuinely love each other.
Station-Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014).
Sci-Fi books and dystopias usually aren't my cup of tea, but something stood out about this book by Canadian author Mandel. It takes place in the recent future and begins at a Toronto production of King Lear starring famous Hollywood actor Arthur Leander. During the production, Leander suffers a fatal heart attack on stage. Soon Georgian flu sweeps across the world wiping out 99 percent of the population.
The plot then pick ups twenty years later when civilization no longer exists as we know it. There is no longer air planes, telephones or even electricity. Kirsten, one of the child actors playing Lear's daughter, is now a woman who is part of a traveling theater company known as the "Traveling Symphony." The symphony travels from ram shack town to town performing plays (Kirsten prefers Shakespeare) and music. While journeying through the ruins of the Midwest, the symphony encounters a dangerous man called the "prophet."
The book also follows several other people connected to Leander: the paramedic who tried to save his life, his first wife, Miranda, and his best friend. Most of these plots take place before the Georgian flu epidemic, but don't be too surprised to see some of the characters pop up later on in the book.
I really enjoyed Mandel's inventive descriptions of how towns and society functioned in a post-apocalyptic environment. Mandel also slips in some nice satire about current society, mostly delivered by Arthur's best friend. The book is incredibly dark at times, but also moving or lightly funny. It definitely is an absorbing read.