Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Book Review: "A House Among the Trees" by Julia Glass

For me, reading a Julia Glass novel is like returning home after a long trip, or visiting close friends or family. You immediately feel so comfortable, so happy, and so interested in what is going on around you. I've been a fan of hers since her very first book, Three Junes, and while her books aren't always perfect, I love the way she unfurls her stories, and creates immensely memorable characters.

Tomasina "Tommy" Daulair was 12 years old when she first met beloved children's book author Morty Lear. She doesn't know who he is or what he has written, but he becomes immersed in sketching her younger brother while he plays on the playground, and she is caught totally unaware a few years later when she finds out that her brother became the inspiration for the main character in Lear's most famous book.

These encounters serve as the start of a 40+-year relationship, with Tommy serving as Morty's trusted assistant, confidante, and all-around savior. The job, and their relationship, opens Tommy's life to a lot of different opportunities, but despite the fact that Morty is gay and older than she is, her job and Morty's dependence on her serves to close off her life to little but him. And for the most part, she's fine with that fact.

Unexpectedly, Morty dies in a freak accident while Tommy is out running his errands. She is completely shocked to find that Morty has left her their Connecticut home and all of his possessions, and while she is overwhelmed by his generosity, when she realizes that he also intended for her to carry out many of his complicated, confusing, and sometimes surprising requests he outlined in his will, she resents having to do his dirty work one last time.

As she tries to figure out what her future holds, since so much of her life was lived on Morty's terms, she must deal with several different people, each of whom wants something else from her, or from Morty's estate. From her estranged younger brother, Dani, who has always resented her relationship with Morty, especially after learning he was the author's inspiration all those years ago and got nothing for it, to Meredith Galarza, the museum director to whom Morty all but promised much of his work, only to find he changed his mind without telling her, and Nick Greene, the handsome, Oscar-winning actor cast as Morty in a film about his life, to whom Morty disclosed secrets he never even shared with Tommy, these encounters will force Tommy to deal with Morty's legacy, and what he meant to her, in many different ways.

"It was invigorating to be indispensable to a man like Morty; at times it was a source of pride—even vanity. But equally vain was her notion that to meet his expectations would permit her to know him inside and out; to know, as the filmmakers believe they do, the inner Lear."

Spanning the years of their relationship, from their first encounter through the tumultuous times of Morty's life, including the death of his lover from AIDS, A House Among the Trees is an indelible portrait of life with an artist, and how easily dependency can merge into codependency, on both sides. It's the story of a woman struggling to find herself after so long of having her life defined by her job, which was so much more than a job, and it's also an interesting exploration of how much we truly know someone, even after working and living with them for more than 40 years.

Morty's character bears some slight similarities to Maurice Sendak, but this is hardly a fictionalized account of that man's life. Once again, I loved the way Glass told this story, and I loved the emotions she evoked in its telling. While I liked Tommy's encounters with Nick, Meredith, and Dani, at times when the story shifted to Nick or Meredith's perspective, it seemed a little jarring, and I wanted to get back to the core of the story. The pacing can be a little slow at times, but I felt this book in my heart and my mind, and overall, really enjoyed it.

There's a warmth to this story, and to most of Glass' writing, that I am so enamored of. If you like Glass' books, this is another one to savor; if you've never read her before, she's definitely an author worth exploring.

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