Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Keeping the House
Oh, Ellen Baker. I do hope you write some more books. I finished Baker's debut novel, Keeping the House a few weeks ago and I liked it. I really, really, liked it. It's long (528 pages) and compelling, full of family secrets and interesting characters.
Dolly Magnuson has just moved to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin with her husband Byron. Sometimes it seems Dolly was more in love with the idea of marriage than she is with the actuality of married life. She knows the expectations: keep your husband happy, your home clean, and raise children. But between Byron not being thrilled with her salmon puff (yuck!) and going out with his friends all the time, Dolly is lonely and looks outside her marriage for contentment. She finds it not with the snippy ladies at the quilting circle she attends, but at the old Mickelson house up on the hill. The beautiful old house has not been cared for and Dolly has the idea that if she fixes it up, perhaps she and Byron could live there and all would be well.
Dolly's story alternates with that of the Mickelson family, from matriarch Wilma, who gave up the piano and moved to Pine Rapids in 1896 to become a wife and mother, to Wilma's children and grandchildren.
Dolly finally comes in contact with a member of the Mickelson family, from whom she learns much of their history. This relationship threatens her standing in Pine Rapids, both with society and with her husband and ultimately Dolly must make a choice.
Keeping the House is a sweeping saga, domestic at its core, but also dealing with both world wars and their consequences on this small town. It's romantic and devastating at the same time. One of the highlights of this book are the quotes that begin so many of the chapters, and come from marriage manuals and magazines from the 1950s. A taste:
'Take an interest in his appearance. Keeping his clothes in order is our job; encouraging him to look his best, and admiring him when he does, should be your pleasure.'
Or how about this:
'During courtship, your husband thought you a desirable companion. Do you give him reason to think so still?'
There are so many more just like that! Ellen Baker really did her homework, and created a wonderful atmosphere of domestic small town life that had me enthralled for days.