It's not a good idea to judge a book by its cover (Geek Love's confusing 80s neon and computer font edition is a good example of why not [the book is about circus freaks]), but the fashion anachronism on the cover of The House I Loved might have been a clue about the quality of the writing inside*. (The backless evening dress, entirely lacking in crinoline, is a clearly modern image.)
I was drawn to this novel by the subject matter: the razing and rebuilding of Paris by Baron Haussman** to create a more modern city, destroying most of the medieval buildings. I didn't know anything about this period, though it explained a lot about why I found Paris to be an "urban Disneyland." According to Luc Sante in his review of two books on the same subject, "Paris had been killed by what passed for progress and would henceforth only exist as a simulacrum of itself." Perhaps I'd have had better luck with a non-fiction account of the time.
The House I Loved is written as a letter from a 60-year-old woman to her dead husband. The writing, though, is pretty terrible and the epistolary style does nothing to create a narrative. In fact, the conceit of letter writing is often taken too literally, and it harms this novel with too many "Oh my dear"s and "I miss you"s. It's annoying how often the letter recounts events that the husband wouldn't need to be reminded of (though it's hinted that he dies of Alzheimer's, a disease that didn't have name until the early 20th century; while it's possible people died of it in the 1860s, it seemed a ploy to relate to the modern reader.) Rose often begins a portion of a letter with "Remember when..." and writing several sentences that end in question marks. It's repetitive and totally unnecessary. A letter from her brother has similar flaws:
You recall, no doubt, our miserable childhood, the threadbare affection our mother (bless her soul) bestowed upon us.[...] Whilst I grew up, with you, in place Gozlin, I already cherished the fact that one day I was going to leave.It's doubly frustrating to read this section because Rose has outlined these very facts already, to her dead husband, who probably already knew about them. Ad nauseum...
Rose also writes things like "Since no one will see these lines," intimating that salacious details will follow, yet nothing of the sort happens. Nothing really happens; it's a frustrating book full of filler. For example, Rose writes about the encroaching demolition, then in the next line says "I still have the same eyes. The ones you loved. Blue or green, depending on the weather." Random details that add nothing to characterization, narrative, or setting abound and what's worse, they never form a whole picture.
Writing to one's closest companion, even one dead of dementia, would (one supposes) create a document with less frivolity, and more meaning, but that never happens here. One big edit could have helped this novel along quite easily: have Rose write the letter to her daughter, Violette. If Rose was to write the story of her early years, her love with her husband, and their life together in the soon-to-be-demolished house to someone who wasn't there for most of it and was too young to understand other events, there would have been some sense and flow. Then passages like this could have been avoided:
She knows you were tall and well built, with chestnut hair, and dark eyes, and powerful hands.That's just nonsense. He would have known what he looked like. Obviously Rose is writing for herself, but if you're addressing that letter to someone it strains belief that even without them ever seeing the letter you'd write it it in such a way.
I thought about We Need to Talk About Kevin, reading this book, and how Shriver absolutely mastered the letter-as-novel. Eva, the main character, writes about all the things her husband never knew, and never saw. This approach makes far more sense, however, it might have cut down the length of The House I Loved, and it's obvious that Tatiana de Rosnay was struggling to create a novel from what could reasonably have been a short story. Rose doesn't have much going on internally, so she has to recount, repeat, and detail.
I learned to live without you, little by little. I had to. Is it not what widows do? It was another existence. I tried to be brave. I believe I was.This kind of super-redundant writing makes me think of nothing but a poor high-school kid, trying to fill up their word count the night before their assignment is due.
Rose's big trauma, hinted at through the book, comes with 20 pages left, and I wonder how many readers would actually get that far. It's the first real action of the novel, and seems superfluously violent. Then again, it's the only time Rose tells her husband anything he wouldn't already know. There are narrative possibilities in this event, but it comes far too late to save the story. The outcome is predictable.
It actually occurs to me, just now, that the worst sin of The House I Loved is that it almost never says anything about the house itself, or the kind of architecture that was destroyed during Huassman's campaigns. The reader knows why Rose loved her family and friends (and various outfits), but the house as titular character gets very little attention. The House I Loved is a total mess.
*I realise the author doesn't have much control over the cover most times, but there's a lot of editorial attention missing inside the book, and perhaps the cover is just another symptom of that.
**Random: the hotel I stayed in, in Paris, was on the Boulevard Haussman.