Karen Olsson * Farrar, Straus and Giroux * November 3, 2015 * 416 Pages
Helen isn’t getting anywhere in L.A. She’s trying to write screenplays, but her ideas aren’t great (even in her own opinion), and no one is interested in her work. Her personal life isn’t exactly flourishing either, and she’s been spending a lot of nights alone, falling asleep to C-SPAN. So when her dad gets sick, she decides to move back home to DC to help him out as much as she can. Over the next few months, she spends time trying to connect with him while simultaneously attempting to process certain important events from her childhood and teenage years.
This is definitely one of those books that you have to mentally prepare yourself to read. At 400+ pages, All the Houses is long, thoughtful, and melancholy. It isn’t that the subject matter is depressing–tedious maybe, at points, but not especially sad–it’s more the overall tone of the book. Helen, the main character, is lost and ambivalent. She’s often sullen, unmotivated, and restrained (though not in a dishonest way). Much of her behavior has to do with how her parents raised her: ever so politely and with plenty of emotional distance. She’s a well-meaning, but aloof, main character who is trying very hard to give us everything she’s got…without understanding that it’s impossible to communicate to others what is going on when you yourself are walking through a haze.
But if you, the reader, can will yourself into a relaxed state and commit to taking a slow and searching journey with Helen through her past, you will be rewarded! There is a lot I actually love about this book: the unique Iran-Contra subject matter, the complicated relationships between Helen and her sisters, and Helen’s muted but still caring relationship with her father. I also appreciated where Olsson chose to take the story. The ending was very satisfying and complete, in my opinion.
More importantly, the writing in here is really wonderful. For example:
“He was telling me this, at last, and as he did I felt something in myself unlock, because it seemed to me that once he told me enough of the story, I would be released, finally, from needing to know it.”
Or, “[There is a] difference between people as we come to know them and people as the subjects of the stories they tell about themselves, which are not about the lives we see them living but about their most cherished departures from regular life.”
All the Houses isn’t a book that flies by, but it is definitely interesting, reflective, and layered. It was like a nice long chat with a good and thoughtful friend. Once I mentally settled in for the long haul, I really enjoyed it.