The acclaimed author of The Borrower returns with a dazzlingly original, mordantly witty novel about the secrets of an old-money family and their turn-of-the-century estate, Laurelfield.
“Rebecca Makkai is a writer to watch, as sneakily ambitious as she is unpretentious.”
Meet the Devohrs: Zee, a Marxist literary scholar who detests her parents’ wealth but nevertheless finds herself living in their carriage house; Gracie, her mother, who claims she can tell your lot in life by looking at your teeth; and Bruce, her step-father, stockpiling supplies for the Y2K apocalypse and perpetually late for his tee time. Then there’s Violet Devohr, Zee’s great-grandmother, who they say took her own life somewhere in the vast house, and whose massive oil portrait still hangs in the dining room.
Violet’s portrait was known to terrify the artists who resided at the house from the 1920s to the 1950s, when it served as the Laurelfield Arts Colony—and this is exactly the period Zee’s husband, Doug, is interested in. An out-of-work academic whose only hope of a future position is securing a book deal, Doug is stalled on his biography of the poet Edwin Parfitt, once in residence at the colony. All he needs to get the book back on track—besides some motivation and self-esteem—is access to the colony records, rotting away in the attic for decades. But when Doug begins to poke around where he shouldn’t, he finds Gracie guards the files with a strange ferocity, raising questions about what she might be hiding. The secrets of the hundred-year house would turn everything Doug and Zee think they know about her family on its head—that is, if they were to ever uncover them.
In this brilliantly conceived, ambitious, and deeply rewarding novel, Rebecca Makkai unfolds a generational saga in reverse, leading the reader back in time on a literary scavenger hunt as we seek to uncover the truth about these strange people and this mysterious house. With intelligence and humor, a daring narrative approach, and a lovingly satirical voice, Rebecca Makkai has crafted an unforgettable novel about family, fate and the incredible surprises life can offer.
- The four sections of the book are written in wildly different styles. Why do you think the author chose these modes of expression for the book’s different eras and plotlines?
- Which of the time periods in the book did you relate to the most? If you could live at Laurelfield in any of its incarnations, which would you pick?
- In 1929, Zilla thinks that “this is a place where people aren’t so much haunted by their pasts as they are unknowingly hurtled toward specific and inexorable destinations. And perhaps it feels like haunting. But it’s a pull, not a push.” Is she right? In what ways do life and fate work differently at Laurelfield? Are its inhabitants pushed by the past, or pulled by the future?
- In 1999, Doug asks Miriam if she really believes that the house “missed all the artists, so it smashed that car and waited half a century.” Does Laurelfield have a will of its own?
- Doug points out that it’s easy to believe in someone having a string of bad luck (like Case), but harder to believe in someone having that much good luck. What has your own experience with luck been? Do you believe some people are just luckier than others?
- We meet Violet only briefly, in 1900. Does what we learn about her in that section suggest that she has something to do with Laurelfield’s unusual properties in the future?
- Before Bruce dies, he says that “the whole damn century would’ve made more sense backward.” Why do you think the author chose to tell the story of Laurelfield in reverse? What would have been lost if she’d told it traditionally? Would you ever want to read it again in chronological order?