Monday, April 16, 2018
Book Review: "The Smell of Other People's Houses" by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock
Dora dreams of the stability of a family, of being able to sleep at night without fear, of belonging and feeling wanted. She has never had those things with her own parents, but she gets them living with her best friend Dumpling and her family.
No matter how secure Dora feels, she knows it's just a matter of time before she has to return to her real life, to embarrassment and poverty and danger, because you can't outrun your family. Even when something good happens, it brings out what you've tried to forget about.
Ruth barely remembers her father, and her mother's mysterious disappearance leaves her and her younger sister in the care of her immensely strict, cold grandmother, who watches over them to ensure they never think too highly of themselves or believe they are better than others. But when Ruth finds herself in trouble, she learns there is far more to her grandmother than she imagined, and she also learns that one mistake doesn't doom you for life.
Alyce dreams of being a ballet dancer, and she's talented enough to follow her dreams. But the only life she's ever known is on her father's fishing boat. How can she tell her father she wants to dance and not help him? How can she abandon her mother and pursue her dreams?
Hank and his two younger brothers need to escape their unstable home life, and they decide it's better to run away than continue living amidst possible danger. But when a single incident puts one brother in danger, Hank has to decide whether to put his trust in those he doesn't know, or risk everything.
"...as a matter of survival, I don't take people at face value. I wait. Some people may look harmless, but most are just waiting to flare up and burn you if you get too close. You can never be too careful."
In Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock's gorgeous debut novel, these characters' lives will become intertwined in ways they could never have predicted. They'll realize that people really can save us in our time of need, even people we've never known before. They'll realize that each of us has untapped reservoirs of courage that we can rely on. Even more, they'll realize that sometimes the family we choose brings us more love than the family we're born into.
The Smell of Other People's Houses is immensely heartfelt, a story of friendships and families and secrets and hopes and fears, set against the backdrop of Alaska in the 1970s. While the situations these characters face are certainly familiar, they're still tremendously compelling in Hitchcock's hands. This is a book full of emotion and beauty, which so accurately captures the big and small moments of life.
As much as I loved this book, it's not perfect. There are a lot of characters in this book and it took a while to figure out which one was which, and how each was connected to the story. The narration shifts among the four main characters, so there were moments when I had to remember which person was telling the story. But for me, those quirks didn't detract from the book's overall appeal and poignancy.
I thought this book was really special, and it's one I won't forget anytime soon.