I just did what I almost never do and looked up a bunch of reviews of Great House before sitting down to write this post. I didn’t read many, but I read a few, and confirmed what I assumed to be true–not everyone disliked this book as much as I did.
Now, I like difficult books. Having to draw diagrams of plot, relationships and themes in order to fully understand them is not something I shy away from–in fact, I enjoy it. But, in this case, whatever textual complications and high literary ideas I liked were overshadowed by the fact that I just didn’t like the writing.
I won’t summarize plot here–there are plenty of places on the internet to read about that if you don’t read the book instead–but I do want to summarize the structure. Other reviews keep saying that there were four narrators but there were actually five–a middle-aged writer named Nadia, an older Israeli father named Aaron, an older British man named Arthur, a young American named Izzy and an older antiques dealer named Weisz. I believe Nadia, Aaron and Arthur get two sections of the novel each, Izzy and Weisz get one, Weisz’s acting as an epilogue. What ties these disparate people together is a) a writing desk b) a sense of loss and c) a connection to Jerusalem or Judaism. Most of them also have a connection to writing or literature. All three older men have also lost their wives. Nearly everyone’s lives have been touched in some way by persecution, either by the Nazis or Pinochet. As the novel basically spells out for us, they are all shaped around their loss.
So, what I discovered reading reviews of this book is that people read these connections as “doublings,” as reinforcements of the novel as a meditation on loss or elegy. Honestly, I thought some of it just seemed repetitive. In other words, some of the connections were TOO connected, their bows tied too neatly. On the other hand, some of the threads of the novel were left totally untied–or, they weren’t, but I didn’t know how to tie them. Because so many of the characters were obliquely interrelated, I was thrown off when several late-developing revelations didn’t seem to refer to anything else in the novel, instead existing on their own and leaving me deeply unsatisfied. It is quite possible that I missed some connections here, so if anyone thinks they can explain everything to me, please let me know.
My biggest problem with the novel, though, was the voice, particularly in Nadia and Aaron’s sections. Nadia’s chapters are addressed to someone she calls “Your Honor”–we do find out who she’s addressing and why at a certain point; the obfuscation of this information wasn’t what bothered me in theory, although I did find it manipulative in a way I can’t describe without a spoiler. What really disturbed me was that her voice in no way resembled the way a person–even this person–would actually speak to someone. Because she was addressing someone without the expectation of a response, part of this is excusable, but it also made it seem gratuitous. It was a literary voice, narrating thoughts and feelings–it wasn’t colloquial, it wasn’t withholding. During the stretches when she didn’t pepper in a “your honor,” it felt very much like a more normal first person narration, but the second she reminded me that she was actually addressing a real person, it immediately turned into a gimmick. The same essentially goes for Aaron, but to a lesser extent–he is addressing his son, Dov, but I was more able to believe and accept his literary tone because his narration was internal, perhaps hypothetical–he was addressing his son, but the son of his mind more so than the actual person.
The section of the book I enjoyed the most was Izzy’s–it was all about her relationship with an enigmatic boy named Yoav, his sister Leah and their bizarre father, Weisz. I hate to say, but I liked it best, I think, because it was the most conventional. Sure, there was some mystery in it, but she basically gave us the story straight in a blow-by-blow style. It had beautiful young people, sex and regret. It also had an excellent forward leap, which put a nice, satisfying bow on it. That said, it really felt separate from the rest of the book.
What I fear about this book is that I would like it a lot better if I read it again. I think I’d understand more and be frustrated less the second time around. But, with so many other books out there to read, I don’t think I’ll get around to doing that.