“The Wrong House” by Carol McD. Wallace 1993
Carol Wallace writes one of the best book blogs out there, Book Group of One, which has introduced me to authors I never would have met otherwise, i.e. Angela Thirkell and Eva Ibbotson. Her To Marry An English Lord (credited by Julian Fellowes as an inspiration for Downton Abbey) is a recent New York Times e-book Best Seller and the amazing Leaving Van Gogh which I hope to talk about here soon was one of my favorite reads of 2013. I didn’t know about “The Wrong House” and when it arrived in the mail as a SURPRISE! from a friend, I couldn’t have been more pleased.
Here’s what I would say: “Rush right out and buy this funny, smart, tender, sexy, and enormously absorbing book RIGHT NOW. I just know you’re going to love it!”
And the female protagonist of this book, Frances, feeling exactly as I do, would express it thusly: “I enjoyed this book. You may wish to read it someday.”
You know I am a huge proponent of exploring those “other” books: the ones that are not in the Costco bins or being touted as the latest hot read from the latest hot author. There are so many wonderful books that languish in obscurity or are not not as well known as they deserve to be. I think of them as hidden gems and get giddy when I discover one. “The Wrong House” is one of those!
The premise of this book might seem outlandish to those who aren’t real estate savvy, but having sold houses for twenty-five years, I know it can and does happen. Buying The Wrong House, that is.
And that’s what happens to Hart and Frances Drummond, upper-crust WASPs who retire from their gracious Victorian in New Jersey up to Connecticut. They plan to live out their retirement in an equally gracious, yet smaller, Victorian in a charming seaside town. But to their horror, they discover that through a series of foul-ups, they have accidentally closed on a ghastly modern home oozing bad taste and looking as though it had been designed by somebody “tripping on magic mushrooms.”
And Frances’ world unravels. She is a Garden Club lady, a grower of fine roses, a needle-pointer (jeez, we have a lot in common!) and one of those women whose entire identity revolves around her house. Her home is a reflection of everything she stands for and holds important and being thrown into this new, impossibly ugly house shatters her equilibrium in a big way.
Hart(less) is just sort of oblivious to his wife’s trauma. Actually he is pretty much oblivious to everything about her. He’s a nice enough guy but clueless. Both Frances and Hart are restrained to a fault. Little between them is spoken. Everything is implied or felt to be “understood.” Of course, not much really is and the pressures of landing in The Wrong House cause pent-up misunderstandings to erupt into some marriage-challenging behaviors on both their parts.
There is a another love story in the mix too. Hart and Frances have a daughter, Eleanor, who is divorced and raising two little boys in New York City. Through some manipulations of her well-meaning brother, she meets and falls in love with George, a painter.
Now let’s talk about sex, shall we? I am one of a handful of women, I think, who read a few pages of “50 Shades of Grey” and metaphorically threw the book across the room. No, thank you. Well, I’m happy to report that the sex scenes in this book, which are set in Venice (!) are wonderful. We feel George and Eleanor’s polite interest in one another gradually evolve into something deeper. Here they are after having a lovely lunch together while waiting for their coffee. George, ever the artist, is studying Eleanor who is watching some turtles play in a fountain:
Shadows from the grapevine shifted and flickered over her white blouse, while the sun caught her bare arm, resting on the tablecloth. George looked at the freckles on her arm and the milky, private stretch above the elbow as it disappeared into her sleeve. He had a sudden strong urge to reach out and touch that skin, just the inside of her arm, with the back of his finger, the way a parent strokes a baby’s cheek. He looked around for the waitress and drained his wineglass.
How about that? And it gets better, believe me.
Often when I’m reading a book containing two story lines, I prefer one over the other and can’t wait to read past the less favored plot line and get on with the good stuff. That was definitely not the case here. Wallace paints her characters so lovingly and honestly that you develop concern, really, for all of them and can’t wait to see what will happen next.
I appreciate when a novel’s secondary characters are drawn as richly as the primary ones. One of my favorites was Aunt Clara, 93 years-old, sort of an American version of the Dowager Countess Violet on Downton Abbey. She is hilarious, bossy, selfish, and a delight. Here she discusses with George how she wants him to paint some murals in her morning room. She has pronounced that she wishes the murals to reflect her long life including her debut, her homes, her three husbands, and her parents:
“After all,” she said, “it will be very boring to just look at me all the time. And my guests will get the impression that I’m completely egotistical.”
“That wouldn’t do, would it?” George said with a straight face.
“No, it wouldn’t” Clara answered. “even if it is the truth. What a pity we can’t put in my funeral. Do you suppose it would be sacrilegious to paint the Assumption of Clara Henschel? I love the idea of seeing myself seated on a rather firm cloud, wafting up to the heavens.”
“Tastefully arrayed in classical draperies?” George asked.
“Mmmmm. No, I think my Chanel lace dress. Can you paint lace?”
The course of true love doesn’t run smoothly for either couple in this book and that’s part of the great fun in reading it. Wallace pokes gentle fun at her characters but her affection for them shines through. It’s a terrific read and I am happy to report there are copies available on Amazon.
Remember how Frances gushed?? “You may wish to read this!!”