While I did not care much for Rebecca Makkai’s first novel, The Borrower, I was convinced to give her new one a try because of several great reviews and an intriguing premise. The novel focuses on the story of Laurelfield, an old family estate owned by the Devohr’s, an old money family with quite a few skeletons in their closet.
The story opens in 1999, with Zee and her husband Doug moving into the carriage house while her mother, Grace Devohr, and stepfather Bruce occupy the main house. Zee is a Marxist literary scholar employed by a local college, and her husband Doug is writing (or trying to write) a book about the mysterious poet Edwin Parfitt.
The house itself has a history at least as interesting as the family that owns it. It has long been rumored to be haunting, having been the site of the tragic suicide of Violet Devohr decades before. Most importantly, it served as the Laurelfield Arts Colony from the 1920s through the 1950s and hosted scores of eccentric artists of varying degrees of importance. Edwin Parfitt was once in residence there, and Doug begins a clandestine search for information and artifacts about his stay, focusing on the long abandoned attic of the main house. His search leads to the discovery of some long-buried family secrets involving Grace and the history of the Devohr family.
After setting up several mysteries, the novel moves on to the second section, which takes place in 1955, right after the time of the Arts Cology. It focuses on an ancestor of Zee Devohr who has just moved into Laurelfield with her new husband, a man who drinks and abuses her, and she feels very isolated at Laurelfield. This is the shortest section of the book, which exposes even more of the tangled history of the Devohr’s. The final section of the book takes the reader back to the goings on at the house during 1929, during the time when Edwin Parfitt was in residence of the Laurelfield Arts Colony.
I enjoyed the structure of the book and the move backward through time, and the mysteries kept me reading. Unfortunately, there were quite a few things that did not work for me. Character development was lacking, and it was hard to get invested in the characters. I felt that too much time was spent on the 1999 section, which was the least interesting part for me and had a complete dearth of sympathetic characters. The parts involving the Laurelfield Arts Colony were my favorite, but it was only a small portion of the narrative.
This is one of those novels that I enjoyed while I was reading it, but once it was over the flaws were pretty apparent. The characters and their plot lines lacked the depth to make this a satisfying story.