The House at the End of Hope Street is about three women — Alba, Carmen, and Greer — who all have unfulfilled artistic potential, but who are all too depressed by life’s trials and tribulations to do anything about it.
With nowhere else to go, they’re called to this magical house where they’re given asylum for 99 nights. At the end of this time, they’ve either got to shit or get off the pot. (Normally, I would detest such an expression, but I couldn’t resist sticking it into this review of what was a very quaint, feminine, stylized novel). The same deal was given over the years to women who made something of themselves (they shat): Elizabeth Taylor, Dorothy Parker, George Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Beatrix Potter, and Virginia Woolf, to name just a few, have all stayed at this house at one time or another. The spirits of these women haunt the hallowed halls and living quarters, dispensing advice to the current residents as they see fit. Readers are invited to live within the pages for the duration of the women’s stay, hoping each of them will get it together in time for their departure.
Since Van Praag’s book was short and sweet, I’ll try to model my review in the same fashion. But before I continue, I just want to share with you one image: the house at the end of my street. No famous women live there. Uncle Boogieman lives there. That’s right. UNCLE. BOOGIEMAN. Just your average, friendly, neighborhood nightmare. I know his name because his van (which I was sadly unable to get a picture of) has a sign on it that says, “UNCLE BOOGIEMAN: MASK MAKER. LIFE TAKER. BABYSITTER.”
Perhaps that gives you some perspective on why I so enjoyed living, for a time, on Hope Street. Escapism, kids. It’s a gift. Now, divert your eyes away from that masked man to something a little less scary: my review.
When It Was Good, It Was Very, Very Good:
1. The endless supply of ginger biscuits was very, very good.
One thing that Van Praag was great at was creating a feeling of comfort: the residents enjoyed delicate, perfect cups of tea; strong, bottomless mugs of coffee; enchanted chocolate cake; and ginger biscuits made by a ghost. They never ran out of milk, or cream, or had to do dishes. There were libraries filled with books, wardrobes filled with gorgeous dresses, and gardens blooming with flowers, fruit, and music. It was like Eden, made just for Eve, with turrets and chimneys and a grand entryway.
2. The inclusion of all sexualities was very, very good.
Love was a key feature in this novel, and it was as varied and faceted as it is in real life: romantic, platonic, gay, straight, familial, passionate, slow-burning. It’s rare that I see a popular, successful, seemingly-mainstream novel with this much openness.
3. The pacing was very, very good.
It won’t take you 99 nights to read this book. It won’t even take you 99 hours. I’d be surprised if it takes you 9 hours. It’s a lightning-fast read.
4. The unexpected was very, very good.
In order for me to be truly invested in a book, I need to be impressed by the prose. I care less about a novel’s plot than I do about the lyrical quality of its sentences. For most of my reading experience, I thought Van Praag’s writing was fairly basic: descriptive but not beautiful. THEN, ALL OF A SUDDEN, I realized she had chops. There’s this amazing twist that’s very carefully and linguistically-occluded. You have to be paying such close attention to know that it’s coming. I like to think I do some pretty snazzy close-reading, but Van Praag wrote a lot closer. I had no idea. She kept the secret artfully and with a deftness of language that I didn’t even notice while it was happening, and *that* impressed me.
If you took a magnifying glass and looked at the head of a pin, you’d see a host of angels dancing, and Van Praag sitting in the center wearing wolf’s ears and a fuzzy woolen sweater, bent over a typewriter — the strokes of the keys providing the music for the Heavenly Beings’ Ball. What I’m saying is: while you’re reading, look closely. Really closely. Look for something in disguise. The genius is in a very small thing — so small that you might have to look at what’s not there, rather than what is. I’ve already said too much.
When It Was Bad, It Was Horrid:
1. The famous novelists, activists, and poets had bland, generic voices. And it was horrid.
Van Praag seemingly made no effort to distinguish Sylvia Plath’s personality from Agatha Christie’s or Florence Nightingale’s. The women spoke from their moving portraits on the walls, giving rote, cliché advice devoid of literary or historical wit. There were no “in” jokes for the learnéd reader; having the famed authors there at all was essentially just name-dropping to please English Lit snobs (present and accounted for). The only nod in our direction was that Sylvia Plath’s portrait was found in the bathroom – not the kitchen, where most of the other photos were — for obvious reasons.
It’s a shame. I think Van Praag missed an opportunity for something that could’ve been really wonderful, and playful, and smart. And, just a little note from this American Lit loving patriot — there were way too many Brits inhabiting the house and not nearly enough American authors. Freakin’ Anglophiles…
2. The ending was horrid.
Well, not horrid. It was nice, in a way — how the future of the house itself was taken care of. But it was way, way too easy and convenient. I guess it made a statement about the kind of multi-faceted life women are capable of taking for themselves, and about how certain sacrifices are outdated and unnecessary. But I still felt a little indignant and angry for certain characters, even if they were above feeling that way themselves.
3. The way Alice Hoffman was ripped-off was horrid.
Parts of the plot were taken straight out of Practical Magic… as all of us book club girls know, since we just read that one back in October. And to be honest, I liked Practical Magic more. And it was published almost ten years before The House at the End of Hope Street, so they were actually original ideas when Hoffman wrote them. I think Van Praag should’ve acknowledged Hoffman in some way. It wouldn’t have even been too much to dedicate the entire novel to her, considering how much she borrowed from her text — the influence can be seen in both setting and storyline.
… I can’t be bothered to write a proper conclusion to this review. I’m sorry. I just… I need to go eat some ginger biscuits. Stat. This book — whether reading it or writing about reading it — causes some serious cravings! And after I eat the biscuits, I’ve got to do the fucking dishes. And lock my door so Uncle Boogieman can’t break in. If only I could go someplace where ghosts would bake for me for 99 nights. Ah, well. I guess real life isn’t so bad. There are always more books!
Kristin’s up next. Hey, she’s an Anglophile! Maybe her review will be more positive than Alyisha’s mixed one. There’s only one way to find out…