Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House is an appealing mixture: part archival mystery, part ghost story, part historical novel, starring a house with as much personality as Manderley or Hill House. Told in reverse chronology, it unfolds as a kind of bookish scavenger hunt, uncovering clues and putting pieces of the fictional puzzle in place.

The house in question is Laurelfield, a historic estate on Chicago’s wealthy North Shore. Built as a private home for the Devohr family, it was briefly an artist’s colony and then a private home once again. Since the story is told from the present to the past, each segment reveals a new facet of the house’s history or an important clue to a character’s identity.

The story begins in 1999, with husband and wife Doug and Zee living in the coach house at Laurelfield, thanks to the generosity of Zee’s mother, Grace, whose family owns the estate. Doug is supposed to be completing a biography of obscure poet Edwin Parfitt, who was a resident of the artist colony at Laurelfield, but he is instead secretly ghostwriting a young adult series. After Zee’s stepfather invites his son and daughter-in-law, Case and Miriam, to move into the coach house with the other young couple, Doug finds himself infatuated with Miriam. When Miriam agrees to help Doug locate the colony archives, they discover long-held secrets that threaten Doug’s marriage and the existence of Laurelfield as the 100-year history of the house and its residents is slowly unfurled.

Both the story and the telling of The Hundred-Year House are more ambitious than Makkai’s acclaimed first novel, The Borrower, but this novel is similarly infused with a respect for literature and literary culture, as well as a wry sense of humor. Though no one character ever knows all the house’s secrets, the reader does, and putting all the facts together is half the fun of this clever and utterly delightful work of fiction.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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