Goodreads summary: “Meet the Devohrs: Zee, a Marxist literary scholar who detests her parents’ wealth but nevertheless finds herself living in their carriage house; Gracie, her mother, who claims she can tell your lot in life by looking at your teeth; and Bruce, her step-father, stockpiling supplies for the Y2K apocalypse and perpetually late for his tee time. Then there’s Violet Devohr, Zee’s great-grandmother, who they say took her own life somewhere in the vast house, and whose massive oil portrait still hangs in the dining room.
Violet’s portrait was known to terrify the artists who resided at the house from the 1920s to the 1950s, when it served as the Laurelfield Arts Colony—and this is exactly the period Zee’s husband, Doug, is interested in. An out-of-work academic whose only hope of a future position is securing a book deal, Doug is stalled on his biography of the poet Edwin Parfitt, once in residence at the colony. All he needs to get the book back on track—besides some motivation and self-esteem—is access to the colony records, rotting away in the attic for decades. But when Doug begins to poke around where he shouldn’t, he finds Gracie guards the files with a strange ferocity, raising questions about what she might be hiding. The secrets of the hundred-year house would turn everything Doug and Zee think they know about her family on its head—that is, if they were to ever uncover them.”
I liked The Hundred Year House, but I was also frequently frustrated by it. It’s certainly ambitious: like Memento, its story structure slowly unwinds the “mystery” by going backward in time, presenting retrograde vignettes from different periods in the history of the house. Sometimes stories like this are deeply satisfying. You get all the way to the beginning and breathe a sigh of relief as the mystery is solved and everything makes sense. Along the way, pieces come together and either untwist the clues or complicate the story further. In terms of the mystery itself, The Hundred Year House offers a satisfying resolution. The truth wasn’t obviously telegraphed nor completely obfuscated, but cleverly foreshadowed. The structure did well by the dramatic arc, in that sense.
What repeatedly frustrated me was the abrupt departure from the characters themselves when the curtains closed on their ‘act.’ Credit to Makkai: she got me invested in (most) of these characters in a very short amount of time, such that I was annoyed at having to let them go. This complaint is YMMV, to be honest, but I would have happily given up one of the time periods to spend more time with the other character eras, or even to do what Cloud Atlas did and have the stories build back up in reverse after the reader learns the secret behind the mystery — how does that change how we view the characters? I know that’s asking a lot of the author, so that’s not an actual recommendation, just an example of something that gave me, personally, more closure.
Giving this book three stars seems a bit harsh, but I can’t lie about my feelings. My job isn’t to be objective, here! All considered, I’d definitely still recommend the book, because I do think Makkai’s storytelling and character development are artfully done, and I appreciated her exploration of how it’s all too easy to let our inner demons manifest into something that seems much more tangible, if given a fertile environment to stoke those fears and doubts. That’s the huge theme that affects the main characters to varying degrees, and the consequences of the characters’ actions are what built the rich mythical history of the house.