If I was down to my last $20, I’d probably buy a coffee and a book… maybe a novel about a house.
Me at bookstore
*Spies book with pretty old mansion on cover*
TAKE MY MONEY
I am very partial to a story where an amazing house is almost a character. And I’m a total sucker for a book cover with a beautiful old sprawling manse, the more secretive-looking, the better. (Add a stone wall and a pair of wrought iron gates and I’ll cough up an extra $2).
“How do you find time to READ?” my friend Deb asked me once. She is also a mum (but she has three young boys) and also has a small business. “E-books,” I told her. E-books have revolutionised reading books for me as an adult. I don’t have a Kindle – I usually read books on my phone.
I love the immediacy of an eBook – you can buy it in seconds. Yes, like many people, I love the FEEL of paper between my fingers, and the smell of an old book – but if there was the choice between a book on a phone and no book at all, I’ll take the book on a screen.
What’s also great about reading on a phone is that you can easily read one-handed, and you don’t even need to be holding it. I can read a book while nursing the baby, which was way more satisfying than tiredly scrolling Instagram in those hazy crazy newborn days. I quickly learned I could feed a baby in a dark room and read at the same time (just flick the book app onto night mode) without the glare waking the baby up too much. It definitely made those night wakings a little more bearable.
And there’s the portability factor – I can read while waiting in line at Woolies or while doing inane tasks like folding laundry or chopping vegies. You can do it! I totally get feeling like you don’t have time to read – but you can. I feel happier and content when I am in the middle of a good book, like life is more rounded and fulfilling somehow.
Today I thought I’d share some of my favourite books that feature houses in a major role – and I’m hoping you get time to read at least one! Tell me which you think is the best. I would love to hear your book suggestions too.
THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW
Yes, the protagonist is an alcoholic female, which seems to make a lot of people cross as there seems to have been a spate of unreliable female narrators lately, but I enjoyed this psychological thriller for what it is: a punchy, addictive little pageturner you could read in a night or two. And the house in it is a crucial part of the story; an amazing 19th-century Harlem townhouse set over five storeys. Living in Perth, where a four storey house is unusual, multi-storey living fascinates me (just imagine how good your calf muscles would be) and sent me on a delightful real estate rabbit-hole swooning over New York townhouses.
The Woman in the Window is another one of those domestic thrillers that people immediately compare to books like Gone Girl and Girl on the Train. It drives me nuts. I totally get that it’s a marketing ploy when publishers do it, but even worse is it trickles over into reader reviews where you get people pompously declaring, “WELL. That was NOT Gone Girl.” Well… because it’s not Gone Girl. Ironically I’m writing this as I’m writing short reviews myself, but I think you should start a book without too many expectations and without immediately comparing it to another book in the same genre.
I recently learned that they are releasing a Woman in the Window movie with Amy Adams soon; she can do no wrong and I will be watching.
Daphne du Maurier
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” is the opening line of Rebecca, and regarded as one of the most memorable and famous opening lines of any novel. And once you have visited Manderley in Rebecca, it will stay with you for a long time. I read this for the first time when I was 18 – so probably not too much older than the protagonist would have been – at an age when I could completely identify with those unsure, insecure and competitive feelings the protagonist felt. But even today I still think it is a great read; a dark look at jealousy, secrets and insecurity. The story is about a young (unnamed) protagonist who is working as a companion for an older woman in Monte Carlo when she meets a handsome older widower named Maxim de Winter. She learns that Maxim’s former wife Rebecca, a beautiful, charitable woman who was universally adored, recently drowned at sea and many people are devastated about her death. Despite the recent loss of his wife, Maxim asks the young protagonist to marry him, and after their honeymoon they return to his huge house, Manderley. But the young protagonist finds she has big shoes to fill, and few take kindly to Rebecca’s ‘replacement’. Even though Rebecca is dead, she is like ‘the other woman’, haunting Manderley from the grave.
Du Maurier based Manderley, the Gothic mansion in the novel, on an abandoned house in Cornwall called Menabilly that she had been obsessed with since she was a girl. Eventually she managed to lease it from the owner and moved in, remaining there for most of her life (even though it was not properly habitable) until she was basically kicked out. Dark, foreboding Manderley is an incredible setting, and although this book is slow to start, once it gets going you won’t be able to put it down.
WHAT ALICE FORGOT
Alice Love doinks her head in a gym class and wakes up to find she is no longer 29, pregnant with her first child and crazy in love with her husband Nick – instead she is 39, has two kids and is in the middle of a divorce.
She can’t remember anything of the last ten years at all and has to reconstruct the events of a lost decade – and see if she work out why her life, her marriage and her relationships with those close to her have become what they have. (The upside? In that ten years, Alice and Nick have completely transformed the ramshackle character home they were painstakingly doing up when she was 29 is now a perfectly finished luxury home with a pool – Alice’s glee at seeing her house for the ‘first time’ is funny).
What Alice Forgot is actually one of my favourite Moriarty novels – it will make you examine the way the passage of time can make you take some things for granted and let other things deteriorate.
Daphne du Maurier
Ok, so I think Daphne du Maurier can do no wrong, especially on the gothic thriller front, and the house in Jamaica Inn is immediately so cold and cruel and creepy that it perfectly sets the ominous tone for the rest of the book. Also, Jem the horse thief is sexy. It’s fine to be a horse thief… if you’re sexy.
Probably TMI, but I read this on our honeymoon in Italy, after a beautiful day hiking in the Dolomites, and our son was born nine months later, so you do the maths. We don’t need Fifty Shades of Grey over here. We just need a rude horse thief. (By the way, I thought 50 Shades was crap. There is WAY better erotica out there… not saying I read it… but you know, it’s out there).
THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS
I’ve always been intrigued by people who live in the most remote lighthouses in the world. It sounds relaxing in theory, but in real life I think I would go nuts.
And as much as I love him, I could not imagine living with just my hubby on a remote island for months on end, let alone years. We would kill each other.
It’s part of why I was first interested by the story of The Light Between Oceans. Lighthouse keeper Tom Sherbourne and his wife April live a quiet existence on a remote island off Western Australia, all by themselves. One day a boat washes ashore carrying a dead man and a crying baby. Their decision they made that day comes back to haunt them years later. Books about ethical dilemmas always catch my interest. I always put myself in their shoes.
THE LAKE HOUSE
Oh, Kate Morton’s publishers are clever. They know that books with pretty old, secretive-looking houses on the cover are like porn to people like me, and I’m not the only one. There’s a definite theme to her covers and a definite theme to her books, which frequently feature sprawling homes in the most romantic idylls of England.
Morton was recently quoted as saying, “Some houses whisper, ‘Write my story!’ so loudly that it’s impossible not to start imagining what the walls might have seen.” She is fantastic at setting a scene, and I like it. This was my first of hers and the house in the novel, an old rambling mansion in the heart of the Cotswolds, one of my favourite places on earth, is just the kind of setting I most enjoy.
I thought the ending was a bit twee, but on the whole it was a fun read.
This is a divisive book. Because I know some people hear of the concept of this book and just go NO THANKS. Look, give it a try. I could have read this in one sitting (except, you know, kids). It’s brilliantly written and no surprise it was nominated for the Booker when it came out.
Can we consider a shed a house? I think so – particularly if that shed was all the protagonist knew for the first six years of his life. It was his house – his whole world. As soon as I heard about the concept of this book, I was intrigued. Donoghue wrote Room after hearing about Josef Fritzl, who kidnapped his daughter Elisabeth and kept her captive for 24 years. He raped her and fathered seven children with her.
Elisabeth’s son Felix was five when they were finally rescued, and Donoghue was intrigued by what it would be like at that age to leave the life you had always known and go into the world. She loosely based the book on elements from the Fritzl case and other real-life kidnappings.
Room is about a little boy called Jack and his mother. Unbeknownst to Jack, his mother was kidnapped by a man they call Old Nick and for years he has kept them locked in a tiny shed in his back yard – and Jack is the product of that abusive relationship. What’s fascinating about Room is that it’s told from the point of view from the little boy – and the shed they live in, that he calls Room, is the only world he’s ever known. It’s amazingly written and I fell in love with the sweet kid. I read it when Little Nerd was a baby, and it tore at my heartstrings.
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE
The book that inspired the Netfix show (but they’re nothing alike). I was drawn to Shirley Jackson’s writing when I heard about The Lottery, a short story she wrote, published in the New Yorker in 1948, that so incensed readers she received hate email. She is an amazing writer, and the Haunting of Hill House is a dark, uneasy psychological thriller/Gothic novel that still chills now as much as it did when it was published in 1959.
The story follows four strangers as they begin the summer at Hill House, a reportedly haunted home, for the purpose of reporting on its supposed supernatural phenomena. The protagonist is Eleanor Vance, a painfully shy, anxious 32-year-old woman who has spent the past 11 years as her invalid mother’s carer. After her mother dies, Eleanor is invited to spend time at Hill House with Dr Montague, a scholar of paranormal phenomena, who has asked Eleanor and two other people to come with him. It’s a dark, creepy novel COMPLETELY different to the Netflix series (which I have not, and probably will not, watch – I like a creepy book but not a creepy show!) Jackson’s writing is vivid; the picture she paints of Hill House is of a house diseased and decaying, Jackson describes the disorienting mansion as ‘vile’.
I know most Shirley Jackson fans prefer We Have Always Lived in the Castle and yes, it is good, but there is something so disturbingly memorable about Hill House that I liked more.
THE GHOST AT DAWN’S HOUSE
Ann M. Martin
I have to include ONLY THE GREATEST BOOK ABOUT A HOUSE EVER. Am I right, Babysitters Club fans?
If you did not once rap on the wall of an old house, listening for a hollow noise that could signify a secret room or secret passage beyond, were you even a child of the 90s? All I wanted since was to live in a house with a secret room or passage.
This novel sparked my lifelong fascination with the old houses of New England, although I was perplexed by the Underground Railroad mention. When I first read it (at the age of six) I actually thought the Underground Railroad WAS some sort of tiny miniature railroad, something I continued to believe for many years (thank you Ann M. Martin, a little bit more detail there would not have gone astray).
Forget everything you think you know about vampires (sparkly, delicious-smelling, Edward Cullen going to chemistry class, meh) and then put aside your memories of the movie version of I Am Legend – and enjoy getting creeped out by this awesome science fiction horror novel that inspired the Will Smith movie (and yes, I do think it IS a good movie!)
I Am Legend was written in 1954 by American writer Richard Matheson and has stayed just as good to this day. It’s VERY different to the movie. Unlike Will Smith’s house in the movie, Robert Neville doesn’t live in a home filled with rescued famous artworks, but his little home, where he barricades himself against the vampires every night and prays for sunrise, is integral to the story nonetheless, and the scene Matheson paints is indelible. Not to everyone’s taste (you might like your vampires more wholesome) but it is a good read.
THE LOST FLOWERS OF ALICE HART
Ok, not a fan. I know, I know. A lot of people LOVE this book (which is why I am including it) I am not one. After the first two chapters, which were decent, I struggled to finish it.
The old Victorian homestead in it is a huge part of the story, and lovely, but overall I felt like it was syrupy-sweet and over-written, the storyline was too whimsical and the main character gasped too much. The best part of this book was the beautiful cover.
THE HOARDER (also titled MR FLOOD’S LAST RESORT)
A creepy old Gothic mansion, a hoarder and a likeable protagonist and her kooky hermit friend – one chapter into Mr Flood’s Last Resort and I was hooked.
I won’t tell you too much more than that, but when I started reading this I felt like it had been a while since I’d read something that felt so original and that was fun.
The setting is a house called Bridlemere, a creepy grade II listed Gothic mansion in West London crammed with layers and layers of junk its elderly owner has collected over the decades, and it is up to careworker Maud Drennan to help tidy it up.
Have you ever looked at a big, beautiful house from the outside and enviously thought that whoever lives there must lead the most charmed, lucky, wonderful life?
Well, that’s definitely not always the case, as The Girls In the Garden proves. Like moths to a flame, this was another book I was drawn to because of the beguiling cover (ivy on an old house = seems to be symbolic of secrets that lie within).
This was my first foray into the work of Lisa Jewell and then I read her others in rapid succession (see below). The Girls in The Garden is not my favourite of hers – but it’s not bad. In typical house-nerd-dorky-style, it made me want to learn more about a housing concept I found really interesting; London terrace homes that all face onto and connect to a private, communal park, where (the idea is) that kids can roam from home to home freely and safely… hopefully.
I’ve always been interested by what makes people hoarders, and that is what drew me to this book. The story is about the Bird family, who live in a beautiful honey-coloured cottage surrounded by lovely rambling gardens in an idyllic Cotswolds village.
On the outside everything looks lovely; the Birds seem like the perfect happy family, as time goes on you realise how dysfunctional they are; with the lovely mother Lorelei, seemingly the ‘jewel’ of the family who finds joy in creating beautiful memories for her children, sort of the opposite, you realise she is a complex and narcissistic person who slowly tears her family apart (I actually really disliked her).
I finished this novel feeling conflicted about it – it IS well-written, but the storyline gets quite depressing and the mother becomes so annoying! In any case, I couldn’t put it down and had to find out what happened next. Lisa Jewell writes well and she can keep even a depressing storyline going. Worth a go.
THE LAST ANNIVERSARY
My husband grew up on a tiny island off the southern coast of Western Australia, where only a handful of families lived and to go to school he had to catch a ferry. We met in high school, but dated and married much, much later, when I found out that once my family and I had actually holidayed on that same tiny island, when I was eight. I remember two cheeky local boys riding past my friend and I on their bicycles – it may well have been him!
I’ve always been interested in what it must have been like to live in such an isolated locale (“frequently boring,” my hubby would probably say) and so the premise of The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty enticed me.
Sophie is shocked to learn she’s inherited her ex-fiance’s aunt’s house, who took a shine to her. The old house is on Scribble Gum Island, a tiny island with a mystery – the Baby Munro mystery. In the 1930s, a tiny baby girl was found alone in a house on the island, her parents having seem to have vanished. The old house and island has since become a popular tourist spot.
This isn’t my fave Moriarty novel, and in my opinion not one of her best books, but she’s one of my fave authors and it’s still a decent read – the lady can do no wrong, and the setting will definitely make you wonder if you could live on a tiny deserted island with no stores (my answer: I could not. I like to be within reach of a coffee shop and dumplings at all times).
Have you read any of these? What are your favourite novels that feature houses? Maya x
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