Tuesday, April 21, 2015
Book review: Keeping the House by Ellen Baker
Dolly moves to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin, in 1950 when her husband buys a car dealership with an army buddy. A traditional 50s housewife, Dolly tries hard to find solace and satisfaction in cooking her husband interesting and varied meals (which she tracks on her calendar, noting what he liked and what he's had recently so as not to repeat too often), cleaning the house meticulously, and becoming involved in the town's various women's organizations, like the sewing bee working on a quilt to auction off for charity. At the bee, she notices the house next door, a gorgeous old Victorian up on a hill, which is falling apart. Next to her ranch house, it seems stunning and she just knows she could be happy there. She inquires after it, to see if perhaps her husband could buy it, and becomes sucked in by the story the neighbors tell of the Mickelsons.
Starting in 1896 with Wilma and John moving to John's hometown so he could help his father run the family businesses, the Mickelsons' stories are told in flashbacks. We meet their children and grandchildren, learn of Wilma's stunning piano prowess and her unhappiness, of certain suspicions the neighbors had about what went on there. Dolly decides to check out the house as she knows her husband would never buy it if it isn't in good condition, and one day while cleaning it, she is surprised when the Mickelson's black-sheep grandson, JJ, returns, an alcoholic not dealing well with his losses from WWII, but he's happy for Dolly's company and begins to tell her the rest of the story. Eventually he comes to the shocking event that caused the entire family to abandon the town and the gorgeous house, leaving it to rot. Meanwhile, Dolly comes to realize some things about herself and her marriage.
I know this is a long description, but it's a long book! But it reads smoothly, even with multiple time-jumps, and I found it hard to put down. A bit soap-opery, there were several cases of unrequited love, running after someone in the rain about to leave on a train, misunderstandings, flirtations, and lies. I enjoyed it thoroughly! It's a slightly old-fashioned style of book, just in that these long family sagas aren't really in style right now, but it is a great book for a rainy afternoon, and you won't forget the Mickelsons or Dolly quickly.
I bought this book at Bibliofeast in 2013 from Park Road Books, as the author was there, to promote her more recent novel.