Saturday, November 28, 2015

Book Review: "Dream House" by Catherine Armsden

"She pondered how shared feelings could pull people closer, or, left unaddressed, like a misplaced or forgotten line in a drawing, could change the course of lives. There were no blueprints for a human life, no architect to pore over details that would ensure a sound and enduring structure."

In Catherine Armsden's beautiful, moving Dream House, Gina Gilbert is a San Francisco architect whose life is in the midst of significant turmoil. Her parents died suddenly in a freak car accident, and she and her older sister Cassie must pack up their childhood home in Maine so it can be sold by their parents' landlord. The house was the epicenter of some of Gina's most cherished moments, as well as many tumultuous ones, as she and Cassie navigated their parents' stormy relationship, their mother's emotional outbursts, and the tension that existed between their mother and her sister, who lived in the family's legacy, a house once owned by Sidney Banton, secretary to George Washington.

At the same time, Gina is growing increasingly anxious over the well-being of her own children, not realizing that her over-protectiveness and emotional instability mirrors her mother's when she was growing up. And it's been nearly two years since she and her husband bought property in Marin, but despite her ability to design houses and serve her clients' requests, she seems to have "architect's block" when it comes to designing her own house, a fact that is putting a strain on her marriage.

Gina returns to Maine to try and figure out where her head is, and spend some time with her childhood home. As she approaches the house like an architect would, studying the form and structure of each room, she also unearths memories, both good and bad, and reframes her parents' tumultuous relationship. She also tries to understand her mother and what made her act the way she did, and begins remembering the family issues she had repressed or forgotten, in the hopes she might be able to come to terms with her own issues.

Many books have been written about the reflection and soul-searching that comes after the death of one's parents, and the return to our childhood home. While some of the issues that Armsden explores in Dream House aren't new, her tremendous storytelling ability and use of language elevates this over other similar stories. But what sets this book apart is the way it juxtaposes emotion with architecture, and how both come together to tell the story of a family.

"Perhaps in this world there were no owners or renters, only borrowers choosing a bit of ground to call home during their short stay on earth. We must choose carefully, Gina thought; when we set our walls down to enclose something ordinary or extraordinary, we must be passionate about what we capture, inside and out."

This book really struck me in so many ways, and so many times I found myself in awe of Armsden's writing. I'll admit that Gina's character and her indecision irked me from time to time, but I understood where she was coming from, and just found the whole story tremendously moving. A great find.

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