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Book Review: The Carriage House

By (March 16, 2013) No Comment

The Carriage Housecarriage house

by Lousia Hall

Scribner, 2013

When we meet them in the opening pages of Louisa Hall’s debut novel The Carriage House, the Adair family of the quaint Philadelphia suburb of Breacon have fallen on strange and confusing times (“they were all adrift,” we’re told): the father, architect William Adair, has grown bitter with the years and has a minor stroke at the novel’s outset; the mother, Margaux, has Alzheimer’s and is slowly fading into her own private oblivion; and the three daughters, Diana, Elizabeth, and Izzy, once luminous tennis champions, have all returned home in varying stages of personal defeat, a fact that only worsens the mood of their childish father. Tensions are increased by the fact that William has installed his old friend Adelia (“a woman not his wife,” as Hall puts it in one of many delightfully archaic phrasings) in the family home – and due to a zoning mishap, the family is in danger of losing forever the famous carriage house built by William’s grandfather (“the kind of house that belonged on a windswept beach, confronting the tumult”).

William’s grandfather designed rooms “so that within their walls you became a better version of yourself, more capable and brave,” but that magic has failed to work on the Adairs, who’ve dwindled over time into a clutch of thwarted people – none more so than Diana, who soaks up the twilight quiet of the carriage house: “The empty space practically dripped, as though inside its old warped beams the night had been compressed into liquefaction by the pressure of uninterrupted years.” Once years ago she secretly planned to marry her neighbor Arthur there (“It was the only thing about her life that no one knew”) and then gave up the plan and lost Arthur not long after.

His return as a handsome and successful restaurant owner is one of The Carriage House‘s more heavy-handed plot developments (likewise William recalling the time he saw Elizabeth play Goneril in a production of King Lear and was “deeply moved by her regal” … wait for it … “carriage”), but Hall overcomes all through the sharp unfussy clarity of her prose and the generous fund of sympathy she has for all her characters. The whole novel breathes emotional authenticity, and the ending is refreshingly complicated – it’s a fine first outing.