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.

24 comments:

bermudaonion said...

The book sounds great and the cover is wonderful. Great review.

Staci said...

I love books that start each chapter with quotes!! This sounds really good, and the cover is awesome!

Rachael said...

Ooh..that looks like a great one!!!

Thanks for the review! Love your blog.....my two favorite things (besides my hubby and 3 boys) are cooking and reading.

Cath said...

I too love quotes at the beginning of chapters. I love the sound of this and will keep an eye out for it.

Bookfool said...

Sounds wonderful! I love books that have quotes at the beginning of chapters, too.

Kay said...

I'm intrigued by this book as well as the others that commented. I checked and we have it in our library. I put it on hold to take a look. Thanks for the review and heads-up on a book that had not crossed my radar yet.

Iliana said...

With that first quote I know I would have failed at being a 50s housewife :)

I think just for the quotes alone it'd be a hoot to read this book. Glad to hear it's a good one!

Les said...

I remember hearing about this book when it first came out and have been tempted to buy a copy ever since. Your review has raised my interest even more! This sounds a must-read to me. Thanks, Tara!

Tara said...

bermudaonion, I love it, too. Thank you!

Staci, So do I, and I just love the cover. I never noticed the book when it was out in hardcover.

Rachael, thanks for stoppping by! Thanks so much - it sounds like we have a few things in common!

Cath, I wonder what the cover would be like on your side of the pond?

Bookfool, wow, the quotes have really struck a chord!

Kay, that's the greatest thing about blogging I think, these new discoveries that I never noticed on my own. I hope the book interests you!

Iliana, me too, totally!! The quotes are pretty hysterical here.

Les, I picked it up a few times before purchasing it due to the cover alone. I'm glad it interests you!

JoAnn said...

Our library just has it in hardcover (solid red background and a wooden clothespin in the center)...not nearly as much fun as the cover you show!

Red lady-Bonnie said...

I've been eyeing this book..that cover grabbed me and the story sounds great. I enjoyed your review. I like when authors add quotes and these sound like fun ones to read. A friend is sending me the book and I can't wait to read it.

Lenore said...

I am watching Mad Men right now and this sounds a lot like what the main character's wife is going through (it's set in the early 60s).

Nan said...

I actually remember that life. Not as a wife but as a daughter watching my parents. My mother ironed his handkerchiefs! He didn't want her going downtown in pants! Oh, yeah the 'good old days' my foot! I remember a woman in college telling about her sister, her older sister but not by many years, saying that she never let her husband see her in curlers. She would take them out before he got up in the morning. Unfeffingbelievable.

Tara said...

JoAnn, it isn't as appealing, is it? I love the blue and red combination.

Red lady-Bonnie, I'm glad this appeals to you! I hope you like it.

Lenore, I have never watched that but based on the time period, it does sound similar.

Nan, Baker is definitely not advocating this life! It was really archaic wasn't it. I did some office work with a woman in college - she had adult children. She was not allowed to come downstairs in her own house unless fully dressed - in a skirt - she was not allowed to wear pants. The only time I saw her in them was after she had foot surgery and had to elevate. Her reprieve of the year, that she would get so excited about, was when he went on a long mens church wkend and she would sit on her couch in her robe - horrors! - and eat snacks.

Carrie K said...

Y'know, if I'd've seen that book in a bookstore, just from the cover, I would have immediately thought of you. :)

It sounds interesting! I'm so glad those days are (more or less) gone.

J.Danger said...

how awesome is that cover!

Vintage Reading said...

I like the sound of this. Excellent review.

Tara said...

Carrie K, really???!! Too cool!

J.Danger, fabulous!

Vintage Reading, thank you.

Lisa said...

Thanks for reminding me about this book. This is one I've wanted to read in the past and forgot about. Don't you just love the cover? It reminds me a little of Hoffman's Blackbird House since the house seems to play a big role in the book and the way the reader gets to look at the lives of the past inhabitants of the house.

Tara said...

Lisa, you are welcome! I adore the cover and the colors of it. I haven't read Blackbird House but sounds like it has many of the same elements.

avisannschild said...

The cover of this book actually kinda put me off, so I haven't paid much attention to the reviews of this one, but after reading your review I'm curious!

Tara said...

avisannschild, I'll be honest, I don't think this book is for everyone. It's very domestic, sometimes unrealistic and got a bit sappy. But I really liked it! I'm sure not everyone would.

Danielle said...

I've wanted to read this since I saw it at the library last year. I know it is out in paper, so I really must pick up a copy now that I see you liked it!

Tara said...

Danielle, I don't think I ever noticed or came across it in hardcover! I'm glad the paperback cover grabbed me.